The End of an Educational Experiment . . .for now

“What a long strange trip it’s been.”–Jerry Garcia

“Dear Ms. Hill,  Thank you for all of your hard work and patience.”

This was a one-sentence thank you note I received from a student in advance of the end of the academic school. I appreciated his sentiment and reflected over what I now think of as the “pandemic years of education”.  These past two academic school years have certainly tested teachers’, students’, and parents’ abilities to practice patience–both within ourselves and with one another in the educational community.  It forced all of the involved stakeholders to work in ways for which we were not prepared, and it stretched us to new limits.

As a middle school, 6-8 Reading Language Arts teacher, I have read countless student journals expressing their feelings of fear and uncertainty when the pandemic first began, their high levels of anxiety as well their feelings of isolation during their time in quarantine, their feelings of frustration during day-upon-day of virtual learning, and their exaperastion when dealing with glitchy/malfunctioning wifi or frozen devices.  Despite all of the pandemic educational vexations, students also wrote of their newfound appreciation for the value of the in-person community that schools foster.  Nonetheless, the scars of this experience, I fear, will remain with many of our students for years to come. 

“Reduced learning time has likely impeded student learning and also affected the development of the whole child.”–Economic Policy Institute

Meanwhile, when reflecting upon this pandemic experience with colleagues, both in the public and private school setting, many reflect upon the multiplicity of issues and/or frustrations, depending upon their unique school community.  Pedagogical adaptations seem to have been one of the major challenges often stated by the educators due to virtual learning, shortened school year, and/or hybrid learning.  Then, there were forced adjustments to instructional delivery in order to balance the engagement of virtual students while simultaneously instructing and attending to the needs of in-person students. This demanded that teachers refine and adapt instructional plans–often on-the-fly if there were wifi issues–in order to best facilitate student learning. Additionally, curriculum was often gleaned to the most essential learning objectives and standards also due to a shortened calendar year and/or class time and, in some cases, to allow for additional time to address the social/emotional needs of the students. Meanwhile, administrative tasks seemed to double with an endless supply of emails, on-line grading, and a multitude of spreadsheets and documentation monitoring student attendance, progress, or lack thereof.

Looking back over this experience, I feel as if I am standing on top of one mountain peak, but I can clearly see there are more summits to climb in the coming academic years.  From my current apex, I can tell you this.  Teachers and students should not judge themselves too harshly as this school year winds down.  Virtual teaching and learning during a pandemic was hard–plain and simple.  Students and teachers alike, across the country, were asked to exit their respective schools on March 13, 2020 with all of their personal/professional supplies and no preparation.  Then, on Monday, March 16, we were exhorted to embark on what would, at this point in my 30-plus years as an educator, be the most dramatic educational paradigm shift I have experienced that continued throughout the summer months of 2020 and on into the 2020-2021 school year for which we are now wrapping up.

One thing is for certain, the pandemic compelled teachers and students alike to establish a strong foundation in the employment of technology for educational purposes. The downside of this is that we also learned that technology is dependent upon access to wifi, devices that work, and equal access for all students to reliable devices and internet access.  While I was blessed to work in a school that offers equal access to devices (although our local wifi provider had MUCH to be desired), that was not the case for all schools.  Additionally, even with working devices, the importance of reliable internet service came to the forefront of the educational world as I witnessed in my own school.  As a teacher who committed to operating paperless during this school year, due to virtual learning, my students and I, very quickly, had to learn how to be incredibly patient when there was no service, certain platforms crashed, or devices simply froze. Which leads me to another lesson.

The last day of school for 1st period, 8th grade, Reading Language Arts students, for 2020-2021, whether in-person or virtual. Eventually, all but one student, returned to the classroom.

“It’s (COVID) taught us that technology can be wonderful, but it will never replace the value of people in safe but rigorous learning spaces talking, playing, and working together.”–Brad Olsen, Senior Fellow in the Center for Universal Education

The importance of local communities, administrators, teachers, students, and parents valuing and supporting one another cannot be overstated. Communities witnessed, very quickly, that not only do schools provide an education for their children, but they are also a reliable source of childcare that keeps children safe, fosters their social development, and supports their emotional and physical well-being.  Meanwhile, administrators, teachers, and students discovered the importance of the synergistic experience that happens with in-person classroom learning. While the remote learning model worked–and will probably continue in certain circumstances–there are real educational, social, and emotional benefits from interacting on-site with one another within the structured periphery of a school setting. 

The last day of school for my 8th grade, second period, Reading Language Arts class for 2020-2021, at times, many were virtual, and by the end of the year, all were in-person

“COVID-19 highlighted the essential role of child care for children, families, and the economy, and our serious underinvestment in the care sector.”–Daphna Bassok, Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Brown Center on Education Policy

While I have no doubt, next year will bring the educational system continued challenges from the lingering effects of this pandemic, I believe, overall, we have the ability to face them with an even greater capacity of compassion and empathy if we heed its many lessons.  The pandemic, it seems to me, has reinforced why it is crucial for the community at large to listen to the needs of educators, parents, and students.  It has given local leaders an opportunity to reflect upon the critical role of childcare and its contribution to the fiscal wellbeing of its community.  Likewise, the educational system must continue to rethink and adapt instruction in order to better facilitate student learning while continuing to cultivate ways to meet the emotional and physical needs of children, caregivers, and educators.  One-size does not fit all when it comes to technology, education, and childcare, but all affect and influence the successful functioning of the communities at large.  

In the end, I circle back to what my student simply wrote.  Thank you to the many who extended me patience through what has been one, if not the most, challenging 15 months of my career.  Many have granted me grace in moments of extreme stress and emotional duress, and for those unnamed moments, I am eternally grateful.  Here’s to summer break, and a fresh start on the coming school year.  May schools blessedly remain open.

First period class clowning around on their last day of school which was also a dress down day for their last day of 8th grade.
Second period, 8th grade, striking a pose on their last day of 8th grade which was also a dress down day.

Steph’s Blues Busting Chocolate Green Smoothie

“If you have a chronic disease — such as heart disease, diabetes, asthma, (arthritis, cancer, dementia) or back or joint pain — exercise can have important health benefits.”— “Exercise and chronic disease: Get the Facts,” Mayo Clinic Staff

Photo by Yaroslav Danylchenko on Pexels.com

COVID has taken away many so-called practices and habits that were once societal norms.  I think it is fair to say that many of us, from time to time, have felt weighed down, a bit angry, and even bereaved over the loss of the “way things used to be.”  In fact, now that we’ve begun traveling down this new road of living, I suspect there may be many things that will never return.  However, on the positive side, there are a few things that have evolved from this swift shifting of life.

One such personal benefit began during the quarantine period of 2020 as I reflected on my own health.  As I recently shared in other pieces, I have a genetic predisposition to colon cancer and heart disease.  Therefore, in an attempt to boost my immune system against these two inherited threats as well as COVID, I began to dial in my focus on the benefits of cardiovascular exercise and plant based eating, while still continuing some strength/flexibility/mindfulness practices.  None of these attempts have been perfect, but they do provide a sense of personal empowerment–a worthwhile feeling in a world that often feels out of control.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Of particular focus for me was a renewed desire for out-of-doors exercise; however, the ever-present battle with two bulging discs and an extra vertebrae was/is a never-ending reality.  Therefore, towards the middle of May 2020, I began researching ways to strengthen my back and core muscles while simultaneously gradually working my way from walking to running in order to increase my cardiovascular fitness level. While there is nothing wrong with walking–in fact, I love it, and I honestly believe it is one of the safest and best forms of exercise–there is something about the heart pumping vigor of running that leaves me, well, breathless!

All kidding aside, I do not want to give the illusion that I run fast.  Speed is not, per se, part of my goal; instead, I focus on increased endurance.  In particular, I put greater emphasis on my resting heart rate.  The lower my resting heart rate, the better I sleep, and the less stress affects me–especially at bed time.  

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

Therefore, without belaboring the point, I found a program for strengthening the back and core called, the Mckenzie Method.  Using some of the exercises from this back method and combining them with exercises from my time spent in physical therapy and practicing yoga, I cobbled together my own DIY daily back/core care routine.  Additionally, while researching this method, I ran across (See what I did there?) a book/training entitled, Run Your Butt Off, about which I have previously written.  This running program offers a plan to help a walker go from walking for 30 minutes, to running for the same length of time in 12 weeks (or however many weeks you decide to take it).  

Since completing the Run Your Butt Off plan, I have continued running 3-4 times per week. On the days that I run, I sleep much better–even if I don’t have the time to sleep long.  Even more exciting is that I have signed up to run a virtual half marathon.  Due to this, I have put greater emphasis on personal nutrition for the purposes of reducing inflammation and fostering recovery as the running mileage increases each week.

“Choosing plants will help all your body’s systems work the best they can.”–Heather Alexander, The University of Texas, MD Anderson Cancer Center

One way I am doing this is by continuing to eat plant-based.  While plant based eating does not have to mean that you will completely forgo meat and dairy, it does mean that those foods are dramatically reduced.  However, my personal choice, other than my occasional indulgence of black bean nachos, I choose not to consume meat and dairy products.  Additionally, I have (once again) committed to breakfast smoothies during this time period rather than skipping breakfast.  These smoothies are whole food, plant based powerhouses with no added sugar.  Every ingredient contained within them is full of fiber and a solid source of nutrition.  

I know that many people are opposed to drinking calories, and I understand abiding by that rule. However, I simply do not have time to commit to a sit-down breakfast, plus my stomach is often a queasy mess in the mornings.  A premade smoothie that I make ahead of time is a portable package of sound nutrition that my stomach can tolerate a couple of hours after rising.  They fuel me through my morning, and by lunch, I find I am not, per se, ravenously hungry.  

Additionally, by the time I head for my after-work runs, even if I am mentally exhausted, once I force myself to my running destination, I have plenty of fuel in the tank to complete the run.  Afterwards, I ALWAYS feel better, and even if everything else about the day seemed like it went wrong, at least I did two positive things for myself: fed my body good nutrition and exercised.  In my book, that’s a win. COVID changes be danged.

What follows below is one of my newest smoothie creations. (I’ve got a few more recipes I’m refining!)  No matter how frazzled, frustrated, or dissatisfied I may feel with external situations, this recipe has a way of mentally picking me up with its bright flavors and hint of chocolatey goodness.  Feel free to play around with and/or change the ingredients and/or the amounts to meet your personal dietary needs and taste preference.  Additionally, serve it up in a nice glass or even canning jar, and don’t be ashamed if using a straw (I use metal, reusable straw.) to slurp up all of the goodness at the bottom of the glass!  

From my home to yours, I wish you much happiness, health, and harmony even during these challenging times.  

Steph’s Blues Busting Chocolate Green Smoothie

Ingredients:

½ cup favorite milk or water (I use plant based milk.)

1 cup (75 grams) chopped romaine lettuce

1/2 ripe banana (I buy them ahead of time and freeze once ripe.)

2 tablespoons flax seed (Can use hemp or chia seeds.)

**2-4 tablespoons of Dutched cocoa powder, depending upon how chocolatey you want it.

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract or vanilla bean powder

1 ½  cup (45 grams frozen; 85 grams fresh) chopped spinach 

1  cup blueberries (Can use frozen.)

½ cup cherry, pomegranate, or pomegranate/cherry juice

Dash of salt (I use a twist of ground pink himalyan.)

Optional: Add 1-2 teaspoons of favorite sweetener if desired, such as pure maple syrup, molasses, or honey (I do NOT add any sweetener, but I know others prefer a sweeter smoothie.)

Place in a blender in the order listed and blend until smooth.

Divide between two glasses.

Can be served immediately or stored for later use in the fridge.

Makes 2 servings.

**If you are not a fan of chocolate, you can skip the cocoa powder altogether.  However, you may want to consider adding, at the very least, 1 tablespoons of it.  Cocoa powder has numerous health and nutritional benefits.