Teaching through Covid-19

As we are nearing the end of the fall semester I find myself slipping into a terrible funk.  It’s been 18 weeks of teaching from behind a screen. Teaching students who, like me, are suffering from the lack of human interaction.  The screen is filled with icons that students have created. A dog with a half-watermelon hat on his head and Kermit the Frog look back at me without making a sound. I have no idea if they are actually present.  I’ve heard from my nephew that he logs on to the Google Meet and gets back in bed. I suspect several of my students do the same. I have no idea if any of them understood the concepts taught. In each class there are a couple of kids who engage. Just a few who ask questions, discuss the problems presented, and turn in assignments.  

It’s not just student learning that concerns me. I also worry about their well-being and their mental and emotional stability.  I watch my co-teachers and colleagues struggle to make connections with students and with each other.  Our lunch bunch dissolved after being divided by the horrid politics of the presidential election. Some of us have taken the current global pandemic seriously, condensing our lives and limiting contact to just a few folks in a bubble that allows us some security and social mobility. Others have not seen the reality of death and illness caused by the virus and choose instead to believe it gives no reason to be cautious.

Students and teachers are emotionally, physically, and mentally tired. While working at a rather large public high school in central Texas I come across teachers and staff who are aggravated. Annoyed by the decisions the district has made on either side of the issue, there are some who advocate for a return to full face to face instruction and others who believe just as strongly that school should be 100% virtual. Our school district falls somewhere in the middle allowing families to choose.  Fewer than half of the student population has chosen to return to school for face to face instruction after our Christmas break.  The numbers have increased with each marking period, although with large numbers of students still choosing remote learning, teaching in the classroom looks very different.

The difference in how we teach is affecting students and teachers as well.  When I started planning for this post, I thought that I would write about ways to try to get students to engage in a virtual classroom setting. What I found after talking to teachers about student engagement is that they are hurting.  Teachers across the board, in different disciplines, are hurting.  Why? The demise of interpersonal relationships, rising failure rates, and the thought that all of their hard work – learning to use new software, hardware, programs and apps; late night planning, and creating new learning activities and projects to teach students remotely- is for nothing.  It feels like it’s all for nothing.

Pre-Covid tired teachers at the end of a day of physics labs.

There are plenty of articles, websites and professional development providers claiming to have the solution.  Most of them are guessing about things that might work in a secondary education setting to get kids motivated. Most of them fall short of the expectations.  This is new to all of us. Solutions are not easily found. The math teachers in our school reached out to students to ask for help.  Unfortunately, the survey yielded little helpful information. Students understand that they are not learning. None of the usual strategies are working now and they aren’t able to articulate what is wrong or how to fix it. Students admit that they struggle learning content and with time management.  Some turn to cheating – using Google search to find answers and even submitting assignments that were completed by their classmates.  Academic dishonesty is descending to new depths.

Pre-Covid teachers after realizing that students learned
from the lab that wore us out on the previous day.

Let’s end this post on a high note. In spite of all of the issues that both students and teachers face during virtual learning there is a silver lining around the dark storm cloud that education has become. Many teachers, especially those in CTE (Career and Technical Education) and fine art classes where assignments are more about what you can do, build, and create, have turned to video presentations. Some of the teachers in my school started with FlipGrid but then decided that students could use whatever platform fits their personality and skill level. The results are encouraging.  Students are showing their faces.  One teacher in my department commented that as students talked through the problem solving process they realized their mistakes and corrected themselves. Another teacher was impressed by all of the diverse solutions that students provided.  This is outstanding! When we are all present in class and one student comes up with a solution the rest turn off their brains and can find no other way to view the problem.  When students are not influenced by their classmates they can work out unique solutions that demonstrate their understanding of the concept.  I love that!  Perhaps this is a cornerstone on which we can build the spring semester. Perhaps we will find strategies that work and we will have students who engage with each other, the content, and their lonely teachers.  

A girl can hope. Right?

Red lips? Don’t mind if I do.

A few days ago as I was scrolling through Instagram I came across a post for an African-American female writer that I started following at the onset of the Covid quarantine. It was a selfie she’d taken to publicize an event she was about to take part in. As I looked at her picture I thought what a beautiful woman. She was gorgeous in a bold, red lipstick. Her lips were full determined to be noticed as the smile that brightens a room. Her bottom lip was just a bit bigger than the top and protruded just a bit.  When I looked at her I saw a beautiful smile, av gorgeous Black woman and her gorgeous lips. After a few seconds in it came to me that her lips were not different from mine yet I have never worn red lipstick. I have never worn lipstick at all, only a little gloss. I’ve always thought that my lips were too big and I dare not draw attention to them. How could I see such beauty in others and not recognize it in myself? 

I don’t know when it happened but some time ago I decided that I wasn’t pretty. The first time that you are told that you are ugly, you might not believe it. After years of being told you’re not worthy, not acceptable, not lovely start to believe it.

I am no longer believing that I am not beautiful. I no longer believe that Black women are not beautiful. We are beautiful in all of our forms and shapes and sizes and temperaments and talents. All made in the image of God and lovely.

Dilane is coming to visit this weekend and when she arrives the first thing we will do is go to the mall and buy some red lipstick.

Looking toward May 2022

These are the folks who journey with me in this adventure toward becoming Dr. Jo. We have had many laughs over the past few days and I know there are many more to come. Information and knowledge gathered has been phenomenal. It is my plan to chronicle my work over the next three years as I become Dr. Jo as a way of helping me to reflect on my life and purpose. I don’t suppose that my dissertation will change the world, but if I am blessed, it will change me.

Transformation

Thanks for joining me!

I’ve started this blog to journal my way to a better life and record my transformations as a legacy to my children.  I pray that they each would find ways to be their best person.  That’s what I want to do.  I am no longer expecting others to love me – I accept the love God has offered me and I use it to surround others warmth and comfort and the joy of the Lord.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to blog about so I chose life.  There are so many moving parts right now and I’ll try not to confuse you too much by limiting my ramblings to my crochet projects, my kids, my research, and my obsessive gardening and cooking disorder.  That should be enough to keep us busy.  I hope you enjoy our time together.

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

Call me Jo, please.

I grew up during a time when holidays meant television specials and that almost always included Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang.  The Great Pumpkin and a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving were family favorites. Undoubtedly, Snoopy was my favorite character. Though speechless he managed to portray for me the fun side of Charlie Brown.  When Snoopy dons a pair of dark sunglasses and a red turtleneck, his alter ego Joe Cool emerges and hangs out near the water fountain at school with no intentions of attending classes. He plans only to hang out and look cool.  Oh, how I wanted to be cool. Since my middle name was Jo, I thought I could have an alter ego as well, Jo Cool. She would be smart and nerdy as I am but somehow manage to be cool, fashionable, liked by teenaged boys and envied by teenage girls as well for her beautiful skin and long, thick hair.  On most days, the nerdy girl part took over and I found myself failing in all possible ways to be cool.

While in high school I began collecting items that adorned Joe Cool’s image, not Snoopy, only Joe Cool.  It was fine if his equally cool sidekick Woodstock was included. He wore sunglasses as well. In Charles Shultz’s own words, Snoopy’s personality is “bittersweet.”  The creator of the Peanuts comic strip saw Snoopy as a “strong character who could win or lose, be a disaster, a hero or anything.” In the end, Snoopy always works it out.  It’s when he’s in real trouble that he retreats into fantasy and thereby escapes.

Escape.

I’m not sure there’s a way to escape at all from my real life situations:  a pending divorce, a daughter who hates me and all of the issues that surround living in a new city without the usual friends and family to support me as I go through these changes (yes, Professor Fluker, bullshit changes indeed).  Even though I’m wiling taking my name back I still feel the void left behind by the curdled marriage. I tried, giving every effort to smooth out the lumps but they refused and instead multiplied to the point where I couldn’t care anymore.  It hurt too much to care. I had to will myself to not care so I could survive. Two more years. That’s all, just one more year. Until even that became too long, too much to bear alone.

At some point in college, I decided that I really liked my middle name, Jo, much better than my first name, Devita.  There’s a long-standing argument in my family about who gave me my name. My dad wanted to name me after one of his favorite musical artists, Damita Jo.  His sister, Aunt Laura, preferred Davita to Damita stating that I should be given a similar name to the famed jazz singer but not exactly. BTW, this is the same Damita Jo that Janet Jackson gets her middle name from.  My mom claims not to know of any of this. She just liked the name Devita Jo and gave it to me. On the day I was born, at the Chicago Lying-In Hospital (University of Chicago) another baby girl was given the same name, her mom having asked permission of mine as the two chatted about motherhood.

Yesterday, a conversation with an old college friend surprised me.  She asked, “What did we call you while we were in college?” I was stunned a bit.  How could she have forgotten. “Jo,” I answered. She admitted that she had my name in her contacts as Devita Joy but it didn’t sound right.  She hadn’t realized that Joy was my married name. The contact had been supplied by our friends at Facebook and there I had succumbed to using my first name.  So yes, my soon to be ex-husband’s last name is Joy. For almost 20 years now, I have been Devita Jo Joy. When I met him, I told him my name was Jo. At some point in our first few months of dating, he discovered my first name, I don’t remember how.  He insisted on using it even though I asked, pleaded to be called Jo. He said it sounded like a boy’s name. Well, it does. It is. But it’s my name none the less. He refused for the remainder of our relationship I would be Devita to him and that name would spread to those he knew and even others like Chinyere who had known me for years as Jo would divert to calling me Devita, even forgetting Jo altogether.  I let them.

I think I forgot Jo too.

Jo wanted to be a missionary.  She wanted to build schools in faraway places where children and families and communities lacked resources to provide free education to its youngest members.  Jo loved learning and would have continued in graduate school to earn a doctorate, studying how students learn math, teaching math and helping others use their knowledge of math to lift up their communities, providing a means to the end of serving God.  

But Jo got married instead, thinking it the thing that she wanted most.  Thinking that marriage would solve the problem of loneliness and would take away this feeling of wanting to fit in.  It didn’t.

And Jo was lost.

Dreams aside marriage required compromise. Didn’t it? Or was it something else?  Looking back I think I may have lost more than a nickname.

Did it have to be that way?  Probably not. Had I been stronger in my true identity as a child of the Most High God, maybe not.

I’ve walked with Jesus since my 12-year old self, having been inspired by a Father Tom during our weekly religion classes at St. Francis de Paula Elementary School, was baptized and confirmed.  I had long since grown to love church and everything about it. I loved the smell of the frankincense and burning candles. I loved the stained glass windows, the art and marble, and the grand architecture.  It was a beautiful building. The carved wooden pews and gold goblets and plates used for communion were magnificently ornate. I loved the people, Sister Grace, with her tie up black orthopedics with shoemaker heels, taught me advanced math while I was in 7th and 8th grades.  I learned algebra and geometry at her side. She watched me work out problem after problem from behind thick glasses that distorted her eyes for those who took in her face, finding such an unusual sight above her broad smile and powdered nose. I loved Sister Ann Martin, my six grade science teacher who would inspire me to teach.  She recognized my heart for God’s people and would remind me many, many years after sixth grade that I had let her in on my dream to teach, to travel the world doing God’s work. Back then i thought I would be a nun too. But when I left Chicago and experienced the Catholic church away from our community of believers on the south side of Chicago (think Afro-centric, urban, medium income families) I realized I wasn’t really Catholic.  Definitely a follower of Jesus Christ but not Catholic. When folks would talk to me about Catholic beliefs like the transubstantiation of the Eucharist or that Mary, Jesus’ mother, remained a virgin and was in heaven receiving our prayers and somehow mediating for the forgiveness of our sins. I believed none of these things and the fact that Catholics did was news to me.

So I found myself attending a nondenominational church while in college and even to this day.  With each passing year, I grew in my knowledge of the Bible. I began to take spiritual disciplines seriously.  As I sought the Lord he drew me nearer and it would be my relationship, my faith, and trust that would bring me through so many trials and help me even endure the consequences of my poor ‘outside of the will of God’ choices

Here I am now, upward of 50 years, closer to the Lord than ever and planning to be even closer tomorrow, looking back over my life and looking forward.  I look forward to becoming as Michelle Obama is inspiring us all to do. I look forward to becoming the woman who finds her strength and her joy in the Lord, in serving Him by loving His.

Call me Jo, please.

And feel free to join me on this journey of healing, of finding freedom, of finding identity and of loving others as Jesus would.