A facemask, pencil and notebook
(CTNewsJunkie File Photo)

As I listened this past Saturday to the forecast for Henri, billed as a Category 1 hurricane at the time, I felt a real sense of foreboding. As we now know, Henri never did pack the punch originally thought. Sections of Rhode Island and Connecticut, particularly in the east, did endure some damage and power outages, but Henri had been downgraded to a tropical storm.

Still, I can’t help but think about how the apprehension I felt on Saturday regarding Henri’s approach was eerily similar to the feeling I have regarding the upcoming school year.

This marks my 31st new school year, and what should assuredly be “old hat” by now feels nothing of the sort. The recent surge in the coronavirus, the refusal of many to get vaccinated, the controversy surrounding critical race theory, and the mounting mask protests have combined to make the thought of this new school year as menacing as an imminent hurricane.

A school year does not pose the life-and-death threat of a hurricane, of course. Then again, Connecticut’s schools will soon be filled with scores of human beings every Monday through Friday at the same time a global pandemic that has killed more than 600,000 Americans is still coursing through the country, so …

The point is, the forecast for the new school year is not exactly warm and sunny. In fact, I’m thinking this could be the most challenging school year of my career – even more so than last year’s hybrid-scheduled, contact-traced, socially distanced adventure. Let’s face it, when anti-mask parents in Connecticut crash school-board meetings and when a first selectman creates an “Unmask Our Kids” Facebook page, it makes this teacher wonder how willingly students will follow Gov. Lamont’s school mask mandate.

As if the “mask hysteria” weren’t enough, a growing chorus of critics has accused districts across the state – including those in Trumbull, Deep River and Guilford, to name but a few – of teaching “an anti-white, radical leftist agenda [that] is being used by public schools to indoctrinate students.” Despite a dearth of evidence to support these claims, the outcry is very real, and many teachers will undoubtedly feel the ripple effects in their classrooms this year.

Suffice it to say, the forecast calls for a rocky school year, requiring deftness and resilience of teachers. I’ve decided that the best strategy I can adopt is the very same strategy I’ve employed since my first day of teaching 30 years ago: Create a safe and welcoming environment that encourages kids to be curious and helps them develop reading, writing and thinking skills.

To keep kids safe, I will enforce the mask mandate just as I would any other school rule. It’s the latest example of the personal responsibility outlined in my longstanding class policy: “Students are expected to be cooperative, attentive, and courteous in class.” The spectrum of such responsibility extends from saying “please” and “thank you” to following a public health protocol proven to mitigate the spread of a virus. Thus, I will ensure that every one of my students wears a mask as a means of acting with responsibility towards both themselves and their classmates.

As for my academic approach, that will also remain the same. I have always sought to reach kids in ways they understand with lessons that bring the wider world into the classroom. It might be current events or pop culture, sports or music. The idea is to help kids make meaningful connections between their lives and the texts we read in class.

The English curriculum at my school, for example, has always included works with themes of racism. When reading these texts, we will bring relevant current events into the discussion in a respectful, nonjudgmental way because that approach enables kids to make logical, understandable connections. Critics might label it “critical race theory.” I simply call it effective teaching. I’ve been doing it this way for three decades, after all, and not until this year had I ever heard the term “critical race theory.”

No doubt, just like the predictions ahead of Henri, the forecast for the new school year is ominous. Even so, I will still do what I’ve always done: I will create a safe and positive environment in my classroom. I will demand personal responsibility from my students. And I will encourage respectful and educationally appropriate discussions of current issues. If that approach has worked for my students over the past three decades – and it has! – then it will work for my students in 2021.

Best of luck to all students and teachers. May your forecast for this school year improve with each new day.

Barth Keck is entering his 31st year as an English teacher and his 16th year as assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School in Higganum where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language and Composition. Follow Barth on Twitter @keckb33 or email him at keckb33@sbcglobal.net

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com or Regional School District 17.

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.