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BARTH KECK

I’ve never been a teacher who gets jazzed up about school birthday parties and poster contests. Now in my 30th year, my emerging curmudgeon makes me even less enthusiastic about such extra-curricular activities. So, when the Thanksgiving Door Decorating Contest appeared on the agenda for my advisory class, I wasn’t exactly jumping for joy. Every teacher in our school is assigned about 10 students – advisees – who meet regularly for a variety of team-building, social/emotional, and just fun activities to supplement their school experience. Hence, the door-decorating contest.

Given my pre-existing resistance to such activities, the fact that we were attempting this contest within a hybrid schedule only made it worse since my advisory only meets on alternate days, with half the students in class and the other half online. Teaching during COVID has been challenging enough; now I get this added distraction.

As it turned out, this extra-curricular endeavor actually opened my eyes – and it’s not the only revelation I’ve had since COVID hit. In fact, once all schools finally return to some semblance of normalcy, it won’t look like the old “normal.” For better or worse, here are just a few of the changes we’ll see in high schools:

• More focused instruction: Teaching remotely has required teachers to strip the curriculum down to the “essentials.” For topics like English and history, that could be a good thing, forcing teachers to prioritize their content. But for cumulative topics like math, science, and world languages, it creates challenges. Just what, if anything, can be cut from Algebra 1 to prepare students for Algebra 2? Consequently, we’ll likely see …

• Course Restructuring: Many disciplines will need to reconfigure individual courses and the way they are aligned within the high school curriculum. Algebra 1, for instance, won’t look the same in five years as it does today. Neither, then, will Algebra 2.

• Individualized Instruction: If algorithms can tailor everyone’s social-media feed, they can also tailor a student’s individual instruction. As it is now, organizing classes by age can be problematic, placing kids of wide-ranging abilities in the same class and requiring teachers to “differentiate” the instruction within the same classroom. Algorithm-based lessons could render both of these scenarios moot.

• More access to technology: Before coronavirus, at least 15% of American students lacked a computer and/or internet access, an obviously untenable situation as we move beyond COVID. Even as initiatives like the Connecticut Partnership donated 60,000 laptops to students last spring, 6% of state families still reported no internet access this summer. Thus, school districts will shift budgets away from printed material to digital resources.

• Increased focus on social/emotional needs: School causes stress for teenagers. An American Psychological Association study found that “teenagers feel more stressed-out than do adults and that school is by far the main cause of their stress.” COVID has only exacerbated that stress – especially for students with special needs – so schools must do more to address kids’ social/emotional circumstances. Increased counseling, less focus on high-stakes testing and assignments, more “flex time” in the daily school schedule – all of these adjustments are on the horizon. Which takes us back to my advisory class and the door-decorating contest.

With one week to go before the deadline, my classroom door was still bare. Not my problem, I thought. If the kids don’t want to do it, so be it. But then a funny thing happened: My advisees in Cohort 1 took it upon themselves to start the project, procuring supplies from an art teacher and working feverishly to create something, anything, to adorn my door. Unfortunately, the advisory period ended before they finished, and they wouldn’t be returning to school until after the deadline.

No problem, they said. We’ll talk to our fellow advisees in Cohort 2 via Google Meet (aka “Zoom”) when they’re in school the day before the deadline. So, they met online and conferred. Cohort 2 students completed the work begun by Cohort 1 and voilà: I had a decorated classroom door.

The details didn’t matter – we all agreed the door wouldn’t win, and it didn’t. But that wasn’t the point. Rather, my students worked together, even as they were not physically together, to complete a task. And they enjoyed doing it.

That emerging curmudgeon Mr. Keck, meanwhile, felt an unexpected tinge of pride in “his kids.” Who cares if the source was a silly door-decorating competition? The kids made me proud.

More importantly, I realized that no matter what changes the current COVID craziness ultimately bring to American high schools, one factor will remain unchanged: Learning is about connections – connections among students and connections between students and teachers. And the best connections are made in person, not through a computer screen, so none of the changes that COVID causes will work unless personal connections remain intact.

Some things never change. Nor should they. Even a curmudgeon knows that.

Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

Barth Keck

Barth Keck is in his 30th year as an English teacher and 15th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition.