by Kathy Pierre
There’s a saying that’s come up in the past few months of the COVID-19 pandemic: “We’re all in the same storm, but not in the same boat.”
For some teachers, their boat is made more complicated by factors like proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border. In Chula Vista, 15 miles from Tijuana, where Teach Plus California Policy Fellows Paulina Martinez is a third-grade math and English teacher and Tamara Frazier is a middle school music director, travel across the border is generally “fluid.”
But when travel was restricted only to essential business, mostly to U.S. citizens and residents, it presented problems for their students and families.
“[The school] had students who were citizens but their parents were not, so when we had computer pick-up, we had students who couldn’t come and get a computer from us, because they couldn’t cross the border,” Martinez said.
Among her students, Martinez said she had 85 to 90% completion and engagement on assignments. Martinez believes it’s because she held her third graders to the same level of expectations as she did when she taught sixth grade and therefore were already independent learners. Her students also regularly used computers in class to complete schoolwork.
However, because so many of her students’ parents were considered essential workers, she had to modify the way she taught lessons.
“I had students who I ended up having to have mini lessons with after 6 p.m., because that’s when the kids were finally home with their own parental unit and ready to engage, which was really, really difficult.”
Looking toward reentry
When Martinez thinks about what the upcoming school year will look like, she’s both afraid and optimistic. Her school doesn’t use a set curriculum for classes from year to year. The teacher creates the curriculum based on their students and everyone’s interests each year.
“It’s been really cool because it’s given me so much liberty,” she said. “I remember a couple years ago I taught about kids getting into colleges to play video games and that was our whole informational unit, integrating different types of artificial intelligence. Every year you can do something different because you do have different kids and their interests are different and your interests might be different from year to year.”
Although Martinez is accustomed to that now, she’s going to be teaching ninth grade this upcoming year, so she’ll have to create her curriculum from scratch without being able to get to know her students as intimately as she would in a fully in-person environment.
“What I am banking on is that the incoming ninth graders were my first group of students that I taught when they were in fourth grade,” she said. “So, I think honestly that I’m just going to use that to help me mitigate all the other issues that come up.”
“In this group of kids that are coming in, they had a very low attendance rate to meetings, and if they were there, their cameras were off and they were not having conversations with their peers or teachers. So, I’m receiving a group of students who did not transition well to e-learning but I am hoping and I’m feeling pretty confident that I’m going to make distance learning more accessible, engaging, and meaningful for them.”
Tamara Frazier, a music teacher, had a different experience teaching band, orchestra and math this year. Frazier had a range of music students from beginners to intermediate, which complicated her remote learning journey.
For other teachers at the high school level, those students are likely acquainted with an instrument and have a level of investment in it. But for middle school students and beginners, it’s not the same.
“So many of my kids are brand new on their instruments and they weren’t confident going home and playing in front of people because they still don’t sound good,” she said. “So it was really difficult just in general, in the district, for all the middle school teachers to get kids to play. And we decided that we were going to offer other opportunities in music.”
Frazier also had to contend with the binational nature of her students, as well as the general confusion of the school closures.
“I had 50 instruments left behind for spring break from students who live in Mexico or who are not allowed to take their instruments home,” she said. “I had kids who thought they were going on vacation because when they left my class; they didn’t know anything was getting shut down. So they didn’t take their instruments home because they’re going to Tahoe or they’re going down for family reunion. A third of my students couldn’t continue to learn to play their instruments because they didn’t have them.”
Frazier, in collaboration with other music teachers nationwide, created “pathways” for her students to follow depending on their investment and access to the instrument so they would still learn something.
As the chair of her district’s band/orchestra teacher PLC, Frazier has three plans for the upcoming school year depending on whether students aren’t allowed back in schools and are unable to pick up an instrument at all, students are physically in school at least one day a week and are doing remote learning for the rest of the week, and students attend school in batches.
“I’ve had some time to develop that in the curriculum that I use already, and I’ll continue to do that,” she said. “I know it’s going to be a little bit difficult to keep everyone on task, so I’ll probably go into it with two expectation levels, where the students who are interested in learning the instrument, I’ll have these expectations of students having to be able to play certain songs this week and then we’re going to learn this thing next week and it’ll be a lot slower than normal, but it’ll be these levels of accomplishment for them.”
“And for the students who aren’t interested in learning the instruments because they were just put in my class, there will be other options for them just like I had this semester with the pathways to give them the opportunity to learn something about music. Maybe it’ll be popular American music, history of jazz, whatever is more engaging for them that they can still walk out of my class at the end of the semester going, OK, I learned some stuff about music. I know more about music. I didn’t learn an instrument, but I’ve gotten something out of the class.”
Once schools closed, some of her students in Mexico weren’t able to engage at all.
“I received emails from them saying, ‘Hey, Ms Frazier, I’m in Mexico, I don’t really have good internet. I’m not going to do any of the work, but thanks for the class, it was great and I’ll see you next year.’”
Frazier, like Martinez, expects that some of her students who live in Mexico won’t return to school next year because of the effects of coronavirus.
In an average school year, the goal for Frazier’s students is to showcase what they’ve learned with a performance or show, but this year, and likely next year, Frazier has no expectations of that being possible — even with the technology that’s available now to compile several different recordings into one.
“There’s little possibility that after six months of distance learning, and let’s say I see them one day a week, no way they’re able to record themselves, and for me to put them all together at the same level of music performance they would do in class,” she said. “But what I can do is show off what the students have learned individually and put together a medley or compilation.”
As someone who’s been teaching for over a decade, that change is going to take some adjustment.
“At first, I was upset about all of the negative repercussions of quality music education being taken away from schools for an unknown amount of time,” she said. “If you compare a kid at the end of this coming year to a kid that I had a year ago, there won’t be a comparison. They just won’t know anything. So, at every level, over the next six to 10 years, music departments all over the world are going to get worse. It will take substantial work and innovation in music education to push past the effects of the pandemic. Teachers are working hard to learn how to meet the needs of students from a distance over the next year or more so that beautiful music is still played at schools.”
Kathy Pierre is Senior National Coordinator of Communications and Media at Teach Plus.