Saturday, October 24, 2020

Days #219-20 Writing Through COVID-19: Seeking Silver Linings

We did it. Atlantic High School required masks on Friday, and we survived.
Of the approximately 440 students in our building, three opted to move to remote learning rather than wear masks. I happen to have all three in my classes. They all Zoomed in during their first "missed' class, and I did my best to help them feel welcomed and included.
This is tough. Masking during a pandemic, according to health experts, is needed if people want to move about socially. As evidenced in school Friday, most are willing to comply with a rule designed to contain spread of the virus.

Nevertheless, if students and/or their families choose to move to remote learning rather than wear masks, I want them to know I respect their nonviolent expression of their opinions.

"I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
--Voltaire, paraphrased by his biographer.

In Intro to Journalism, we study the Tinker vs. Des Moines Supreme Court decision that assures students their civil rights (including free speech and press) while at school. As we study the case, we learn how a small group of students expressed their opinions (wearing black armbands to protest the Viet Nam war) despite the consequences: in this case, school suspension.

I cannot support students' political expression only when it aligns with mine. Supporting my non-masking students is important to me in maintaining my ethical equilibrium.

So while I support our district's decision to require masking when public space, I also support my non-masking students' choice to stay home and attend school remotely.

I'm walking a tightrope.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” 
--F. Scott Fitzgerald

Today is Saturday. It was only 30 degrees when I headed to the trail for my run this morning. I donned three layers of shirts/jackets, gloves, a gator, as well as three headbands (one fleece). The sun was out, the wind minimal. I planned to run four miles, but I felt good went for six, since tomorrow's weather is forecasted to be colder and snowy.

I then rode my unicycle!
There are many aspects of my life that are diminished by this pandemic. I haven't held my grandson. I can't teach the way I want to. I can't play the accordion with my mother-in-law. I still haven't held my dear friend's baby (now nearly four months old) or seen her new house. I can't visit my kids. I can't hug my neighbor; we have coffee on the phone. I missed my aunts' funerals. I've missed three weddings. My face feels chapped under my mask. Everything. Is. More. Difficult.

So bear with me when I try to find ways my life has IMPROVED during the past six months, including the reason I'm compelled to write about time on the trail today:
  • I've regained fitness through running that has given me the confidence to ride my unicycle after avoiding it for two years.
  • I have simplified my life.
  • I reestablished relationships with my parents.
Silver linings do not erase the clouds, but they ease the fog.

Be well.

My glowing daughter-in-law with Wolf,
determined to suck his thumb even through his hoodie.


Friday, October 23, 2020

Day #218 Writing Through COVID-19: Masks and Tik-Tok

Our school board voted 5-0 to require masks for the next 30 days. Since August, the board has voted along 2-3 lines against a mandate at least twice. Today, with the county positivity rate above 20%, with our local public health officials asking the schools to mandate masks, and with teachers and community members presenting petitions, the board agreed to the 30-day mask mandate.

I think the 30-day window doesn't make a lot of sense. We are always three weeks behind the virus. Thirty days is unlikely to bring our county numbers under 5% where it needs to be. The board members said framing the mandate as temporary is a compromise for those who want no masks. 

The meeting was held over the noon hour, which is also my prep period, so I was able to attend, as was a lead editor of our student news site. Students in my afternoon classes seemed positive about (or at least okay with) the new rule, especially as a less extreme strategy than moving to hybrid or online learning.  

Tomorrow will be our first day of required masks. Our principal will not be in the building due to a pre-scheduled absence. 

I'll let you know how it goes. 

The second event of the day involved the Tik-Tok video I'll post below. 

On Tuesday, the National Day on Writing, I asked my students to spend a few minutes writing about what writing has done for them, how has it helped them, why it has brought them satisfaction at various times in their lives. As we then shared out our thoughts, it became clear to me that 15 students had produced 15 unique answers.

Spontaneously, I invited my students to share their "Why I Write" answers on Tik-Tok. We threw the video together in the final two minutes of class. (You can hear the bell ring in the video!)

It was a celebratory way to end the class period. 

I posted my first Tik-Tok on Oct. 7. of my darling grandson. It has been watched almost 200 times. 

The Why I Write clip was my 12th post. As of tonight, it has been viewed 30,000 times, with over 5000 likes. 

No one really knows why some Tik-Toks pick up speed like that, but as with anything widely spread on social media, it has garnered comments: some positive, many funny, and a few rather mean. 

When my students came to class today, they immediately started talking about their video's popularity. 

While filming, most of the kids removed their masks so they could be heard clearly. But the viewers don't know this, so many of the comments scolded the kids for not wearing masks.

Others suggested I (the teacher) had forced "lies" from the students because surely no one really likes to write (??). 

As a class, we read the comments, both laughing and sharing our dismay. One boy said the negative comments tell us more about the sad people who post them than about us. When I offered to take the video down, or to shut off the comments, the students were adamant: leave it up!

I did stress that if any of them decide they want the video removed, or want the comments turned off, they can email me privately and I will do it without naming them. That is, every person in the class has veto power over our shared video.

The class period was one of those exquisite teaching days when students are honestly thinking, discussing, and learning. The class bonded as individual students shared their heads and hearts on an authentic issue from the real world. 

Be well.


Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Day #216-217 Writing Through COVID-19: Outbreak and Breakdown

The positivity rate in Cass County this morning is at 21.1 percent. We are second-highest in the state, due in part to an outbreak in a local care facility, one my students used to visit on Community Service Day to interview the residents, wash windows, help with crafts. It is a lovely, loving place for 90 beloved grandmas, grandpas, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. Yesterday's news report said the facility has 23 active COVID cases.

The Cass County public health director cautions that the increase in Atlantic's positivity is not only from the care center:  "We're seeing a wide range (of cases) from kids to older adults, coming up now at a very alarming rate." She said community spread is up because people are not recognizing COVIDsymptoms: "By the time they get tested, they've walked around for the whole time with COVID."  “We are seeing a lot more people that don’t think it’s COVID, and by the time they get tested, they’ve walked around for the whole time with COVID."

Masks, anyone?

This morning I'm taking my mother-in-law to Omaha for her root canal. We were able to request that the evaluation and procedure are taken care of during a single visit to minimize the number of trips to the city. She'll have her post-op exam here in Atlantic (where the COVID positivity rate is 21.1 %, remember?)

My friend who is teaching totally online to remote learners in Des Moines is at her wit's end. Her students don't want to turn on their cameras while Zooming, so she teaches to a blank computer screen. Students keep themselves on mute, preferring to answer minimally in the chat space. 

Last night she called to brainstorm ideas for engagement in this strangest of times. Her entire teaching style is based on relationships and interactivity. She said she feels like she's in a bad romance: giving and giving to a "boyfriend" who ignores her. 

Today she said she'll sing to her class until they turn their cameras on. Her lyrics are something like "If you want the singing to stop, you'll need to turn your cameras on! I can sing all hour if need be...."

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Be well.


My son holding his son

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Day #214-15 Writing Through COVID-19: Root Canals, Covid, and Why I Write

My mother-in-law's worries about her upcoming root canal continue to dominate my days. But honestly, I can't bear to write about it. 

So here's the short version:

There is no short version. 

There is only the long version, which involves my mother-in-law wanting a solution that does not exist. It entails multiple phone calls, lots of re-explaining. As my husband said, this is only a foreshadowing. As much as we celebrate Dan's 91-year-old mother's youthfulness, her confidence and health are no longer on the upswing.

I've requested a sub for Wednesday to take my mother-in-law to her Omaha appointment. If all goes as hoped, her dental work will be completed in one fell swoop and we'll do follow-ups from Atlantic.

In other news:
The 14-day rolling average for Covid testing positivity is now above 15% in Cass County. This puts us into the category that allows our district to request to move to online teaching/learning.

I'm pretty sure that if our district is still unwilling to require students to mask up, they will not be aggressive in moving us online.

We got an email from admin praising us for our success with our mitigation strategies (distancing and wearing masks when distancing isn't possible). It said we've had only minimal Covid transmission in our building. 

Yes, we've only had one Covid case in the high school this fall if you don't count the cases that erupted in August involving several students and administration. 

Yes, we can all be happy about this. 

But most kids don't wear masks. Most kids don't distance. 

My face is chapped. 

I'm lonely eating lunch alone in my room while my colleagues eat lunch, unmasked, in the workroom together. 

I'm weary.

Tomorrow is the National Day on Writing, sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of English. 
The question asked each year on this day is Why do you write? 

I write to make sense of my days, to find meaning in the small moments. Writing is centering. It draws my wide and wild thoughts together, to a point where the pencil meets the page, where only one word can be written, and then the next. 

You may or may not write regularly, but I invite you to try it tomorrow. Open a page and open your head and heart. Put some of that into words. 

Be well.


Wolf, 15 weeks 

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Day #213 Writing Through COVID-19: Let's Worry About This

I woke to a 5:30 a.m. call from my mother-in-law. She'd had a rough night and asked me to come over and talk with her. The door would be open, she said, which meant I would enter her house for the first time since I returned to the (potentially contaminated) classroom two months ago. 

I made a quick cup of coffee, threw on sweatpants, grabbed a mask, and headed her way, a mile down the road. 

My mother-in-law is a creative, intelligent, complex woman. She has been nothing but supportive, nonjudgmental, and kind to me in the 36 years I've been married to her son. Our relationship has always been positive, but in the past three years, as we've practiced accordion together almost daily, our friendship has deepened. 

Until COVID, she played the piano for chapel and visited with residents in the Elk Horn care center almost daily. When I was teaching at school, she would whisk in and tidy my kitchen, run a load of laundry. 

Remember, this woman is 91. 

She is also a conservative Christian who left our church when the ELCA voted to allow gay pastors to serve in our congregations; she fears cities and their bustling diversity; she resists travel and uncertainty.  In other words, she holds core beliefs that are very different than mine. 

We do not discuss the differences in our deep convictions. Instead, we silently love each other where we can.  This calls for a Venn diagram:


Her concerns this morning were related to the anxiety she feels about an upcoming root-canal procedure in Omaha. She's not worried about the dental work itself, but about going into the city, and about her (in)ability to sit through the appointment with her over-active bladder issues. 

She'd worked herself into a panic over an appointment still five days out, imagining worst-case scenarios until the anxiety manifested itself physically: she said it felt like her "nerves were being stretched," a description she's used in the past during her most anxious episodes.  

I was able to get her a doctor's appointment at 1:30, so I taught the first part of the day before taking her to the medical center. The appointment went well, with a gem of a doctor who listened patiently as my mother-in-law described her symptoms. The doctor offered medications for both the over-active bladder and the anxiety, then nodded with understanding as her patient rejected all options. 

My mother-in-law hates taking any medicine; it makes her worry. So we are faced with a circular conundrum: medication could reduce her anxiety, but taking medication increases her anxiety, so she refused medication, so she remains anxious. And the over-active bladder situation, which is exacerbated when she's nervous, remains a problem.

So we walked out of the appointment without medications, but with a blip of optimism at hearing the doctor remind my mother-in-law that her bladder issues are worse in the night, and that during a daytime dental appointment, she will be fine. The doctor also suggested adding an extra pad inside her Depends. 

Sorry. No one wants to talk about urine. Except maybe third-graders. 

But this was my day.

My mother-in-law is still physically strong and mentally sharp. She deserves control over her medical decisions. It is my role to return to her the nonjudgmental kindness and support she's given me over the years. So that's what I do. 

It's hard to see her spinning in a cycle of worry. 

I spill my frustration onto this page. 

Be well.


Friday, October 16, 2020

Day #212 Writing Through COVID-19: What a Year(book)

It was a good Thursday. My yearbook staff is THIS CLOSE to finishing the 2020 book. Tomorrow at 9 a.m. we will run the index and hit submit!

The deadline was last July, but I refused to finish the book without students, who'd basically fallen off the face of the earth on March 13. 

Let me say this unequivocally: the #1 job for each of us during the spring of 2020 was to isolate and get through the day. I do not fault last year's students for not finishing their assigned pages. I do not know the pressures and difficulties they experienced during this time.

But when school resumed this fall, my new staff was tasked with finishing last year's book. I am beyond grateful for their willingness to pick up where the pieces left from last year. Here's a picture of the amazing team that FINISHED THE BOOK!


Tonight I Zoomed with English teachers across the state who would have (in a non-Covid year) been meeting at the annual Iowa Council of Teachers of English convention. 

It was a lovely, healing gathering. One woman played the harp for us. One told of her plans to attend a weekend crafting retreat.

The poem shared by the group's organizer touched my marrow. Again and again, poetry turns the pain of human experience into something beautiful. Here is Covid, reimagined through a poet's lens: How Will This Pandemic Affect Poetry?

Tomorrow is Friday.

Be well.


Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Days #210-211 Writing Through COVID-19: Laughing Matters

I called my parents last night. Their voices were sad as they talked about Vern, but we were able to laugh together recounting some of his antics: learning to open the refrigerator door; bee-lining for the asparagus patch to munch on dried stems; barking each night at 5:45 p.m., as if he could read the clock, to tell us he was ready for his supper--with half an egg on top, please. 

My dad said my mom would need to adjust her early-morning routine of waking at five and taking Vern out for a long walk. Of course, she could still go for a walk without Vern, but the purpose is missing.

This evening I Zoomed with my parents to see their faces and play some Bridge. "How are you?" I asked my dad. "Well, we're missing Vern," he said. But his voice wasn't as sad as yesterday. My mom appeared on the screen smiling, wearing a bright purple blouse with a gold chain. 

When my dad and I opened our game of FunBridge on the shared screen, my mother quipped, "I'm taking early retirement!" as she headed off to bed. 

"Early retirement at age 90?" We all laughed.

My parents have lost so much of their once-good minds. Their memories are holey, whispy. My dad's vocabulary, once far broader than mine, loses words each day. My mother still has her words, but no longer an anchor holding her steady in the here and now.

Nevertheless, both of my parents still seem to deliver and appreciate a joke. This is incredibly important to me, as their wit has defined their conversational styles, their love of wordplay, their alternating self-deprecation and hyperbolic self-promotion: "Smartest Man In The World."

I need to hear them laugh.

Tonight my dad kept telling me he couldn't hear me, so I kept talking louder. Finally, I said, "Is  your volume turned up?"

He sheepishly realized he'd turned down the computer volume earlier in the day. When he turned it back up, we had a good laugh.

Be well.



Wolf carries the Berryhill laughing genes.