The New Normal… ish

Prologue
This year, teachers in FWSU are doing extraordinary things to move learning forward and keep their learners engaged in learning 5 days a week within a hybrid schedule.  The challenges are legion, but teachers face them with creativity, dedication, flexibility, stamina, and yes, humor.  Every one of our teachers has a story to tell about the teaching and learning experience during COVID-19 that is different from any other story they have told or will tell when we are finally post-pandemic. Emily Wills is one of those amazing teachers FWSU is so lucky to have. In this middle school hybrid model, Emily and her students have continued to work on finding the main idea and understanding the vocabulary in what they are reading (that never stops), giving speeches (students have a lot to say and an important voice), writing poems and letters (they are indeed writers), and keeping a Reader’s Notebook (organization matters more than ever). This is Emily’s story: funny, touching, inspiring, and real.

Linda Keating, FWSU Director of Curriculum

The New Normal… ish

School has been back in session for nearly two months at FWSU.  We’ve been building relationships and building plexiglass barriers.  Teaching and taking temperatures.  Supervising and sanitizing.  It has been wonderful to have students with us face-to-face again.  And yet, I have only seen my A and B students in-person sixteen days apiece so far this year.

Sixteen. Days. 

When I think of it that way, I am slightly less bothered by the amount of curriculum that has fallen to the wayside.  In a normal school year my seventh graders would have worked both an argument and an informative essay through the writing process.  They would have read a young adult novel together as a class and taken on nonfiction texts in small groups.  We would have learned how to speak and listen in a Socratic seminar.  

This year?  We’re two-thirds of the way through a book and we’ve painted rocks. 

So is this the new normal?

For this year, yes.  Yes it is.  

Our original plans as educators— what we would do in a normal year, in a normal classroom set-up, with a normal number of in-person school days per week, and normal staffing— must necessarily give way to this reality. 

This is so hard for us.  We are people of integrity, and we are worried not only about student regression due to remote learning last spring but also the impact of hybrid learning on our kids this fall.  Our two days face-to-face with kids each week are precious, but they feel like a Monday immediately followed by a Friday.  We welcome our students back from five days away only to send them off again the next day.  It is very difficult for us to figure out how to maximize our in-person time.  

Last week, inspired by our superintendent Jim Tager, I asked my students to choose a word that they felt could help them in school, at home, and in any hobbies or co-curriculars.  The students wrote and talked a little bit about their words.  Then I dedicated most of a class period for students to paint their words on a river rock.  

This was a hard decision for me.  Usually I wouldn’t think twice about making space in my English Language Arts class to give students a chance to be creative and have fun.  This year though, in the new normal, activities that involve stones and acrylic paints seem like a waste of time when there is so much vocabulary and grammar to cover.  

I don’t regret my decision, though.  The kids loved the chance to choose colors and plan their design.  They proudly showed each other their work.  One student yelled of his finished piece “Hey!  This isn’t bad!” in a tone of such genuine surprise that I cracked up.  It made it worth rolling around my cart full of brushes, pallets, paper towels, Sharpies, and paint like some kind of itinerant Michael’s employee… not to mention sanitizing all of these materials after each use.

As my kiddos posed for photos— in separate A and B day groupings, of course— I held up my cell phone and automatically told them to “Smile!”  They yelled back, “But Mrs. Wills!  You can’t see our faces!”  I laughed, and told them they were right, and took the pictures.

When I look at the photos now though, I can see that many of them are, in fact, smiling.  I can tell from their eyes, even though their mouths are covered with the mandatory masks.  

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Some things don’t change.  Our students are still our students, and we are still their teachers who love them and are doing our best.  Our best just looks different this year.  We must let some things go, adjust our expectations, and keep moving forward.  

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This isn’t really a new normal.  It’s normal…ish. 

And I encourage all of my amazing colleagues to be at peace with that.

Emily Wills is a 7th and 8th grade English Language Arts teacher at BFA Fairfax.  This is her 16th year in that role.  In her downtime, Emily enjoys walking, reading, and spending time with her husband and her dog. 

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