Elaine Ivy is a middle school teacher in Malden, MA, one of the most diverse communities in the state, where over 60 languages are spoken in the schools. She describes her students as funny and sensitive, touched by poverty, mental illness and domestic abuse, children of business owners, refugees, parolees, and war. Now that school is closed, she’s doing her best to stay connected to all of them. Ms. Ivy keeps her spirits high by thinking back to favorite pre-COVID moments with her students, chief among them, presiding over a Gingerbread House Baking Competition.
Q: Tell me about your students.
A: I teach about 110 teenagers, 13-15 years old. They are still young enough to be silly, and cognitively developed enough to be intellectually engaging. They answer the phone when Comcast or the hospital calls because their parents’ English is too poor. They come to school exhausted because mom or dad got off work at midnight and wanted to say goodnight. They eat rice and beans for breakfast and cold pizza for the reduced price school lunch. My students are everything.
Q: How long has it been since your school closed?
A: We were one of the last public schools in Massachusetts to make the decision to close. Then it was lightning fast. The morning of March 11th we got an email saying all Malden schools would remain open. The next afternoon, at 5 pm we got an email saying all school buildings were closed except for custodians. That night, we learned school was closed until further notice. Ten days later, we got the news we were dreading but expecting, when the Governor announced all schools would remain closed for the rest of the school year. I’d left all my belongings at school.
Q: What were those first few days like?
A: I was answering a ton of emails from students and just trying to look like we had a plan, even if we didn’t. Not knowing when or if I would get to see students I’d built strong relationships with over the last seven months was like sitting in an emergency room waiting to see if the surgery had been successful. I hoped the closing would be temporary. It was unsettling.
Behind the scenes, academic directors were scrambling to pull together some sort of remote learning plan that seemed equitable in my school district — where some households have 3 Macs and others do not have Internet.
Within a few days, the city of Malden started distributing Chromebooks to families that did not have one, and paying for hot spots for families that didn’t have Internet access.
Q: Are you teaching remotely now? Are the kids learning?
A: Yes and maybe. From the start, my teaching team started hosting virtual “fun” days on Google Meetup, an attempt to keep in touch with our students. Then the school district created guidelines for what we should be assigning them. It’s tough.
During one Meetup I asked my students what time they were waking up in the morning now that there was no school. One young man said he had gone to bed at 7 a.m. We all chuckled, and when I asked why, he said because his 2-year year old brother kept him up all night – it’s his job to manage him since his parents have to work. He then reached over and pulled a toddler into the viewscreen. It was both adorable and eye-opening. Then I asked the other kids on the Meetup who else was taking care of their younger siblings, and within minutes, 8 out of 20 kids on that call had a small child on their laps. No classroom could show me what is important right now, the way virtual teaching has.
At the beginning of April, I had about 75% participation. Then we were told not to assign anything for April vacation. Now my participation is down to 60%.
Q: At this point, what obstacles are getting in the way of what you are trying to do?
A: Getting in touch and staying in touch with all of my students. For example, one family has five kids, each in a different grade. But the family only got one Chromebook from the school to share. Having all five kids access and be motivated to learn in a virtual classroom – sharing a single laptop, is difficult.
Q: Tell me about one of your favorite teaching moments – before school closed.
A: I hold a gingerbread baking competition for my students every December. It’s insanely exciting for them. Last December, Omar, a shy and polite boy, came into my room after the students had left, while I was dusting flour off the table tops. I asked him what’s up? He told me he wanted to say thank you for the experience – that he had never had so much fun or really experienced anything like this in school before, and that it had changed his idea of what school should be like. He was a little emotional. I listened, and I really felt what he was saying. I knew that Omar and his family were entertaining the idea of going underground because of immigration issues. This was the first time he’d been relaxed in a while. As soon as he left my classroom I started bawling. Teaching can be so simple. But it can be so powerful, too.
Q: What do you miss most about being in the classroom?
A; The energy. Kids in 8th-grade have the curiosity of toddlers, the courage of war-time soldiers and passion of great novellas. To them, everything is a big deal: getting a haircut, getting an A, getting a C, what’s for lunch, the book I have on my desk. They are literally the most interesting people to talk to and learn with each day.
Q: If you were invited to the White House to talk to Trump, would you go? If so, what would you say to him?
A: I would RSVP yes and then blow that piece of shit off like a bad second date. The thing is with narcissists like Trump, they don’t care about others, and aren’t fazed by feedback or insults. He simply thrives on being acknowledged, so I wouldn’t show up. It might make a good story for my grandkids if I went, but I can see no other benefit. Plus, I would be afraid he would grab me by the …..