High School Teacher Shares Ways to Connect During COVID-19

Tell us more about your role and your classroom/school/district.

It is my first year as a social studies teacher at Roberto Clemente Community Academy High School, a public neighborhood school in Humboldt Park on Chicago’s West Side. I teach three sections of U.S. history, and two sections of computer science.

Humboldt Park has had a large Puerto Rican population since the 1970s, and the few blocks that extend West from my school, known as Paseo Boricua, are book-ended by 20-foot-tall Puerto Rican flags that extend across Division Street. The school was actually created because of community organizing by the Puerto Rican community in the 1970s for a community school. The neighborhood today is rapidly gentrifying, and many of the older residents are being pushed out, but we still have lots of Puerto Rican students.

Our demographics are roughly two-thirds Latinx and one-third Black students, with around 90% who live below the poverty line. About 20% of our students are in temporary living situations. These demographics are pretty typical for a neighborhood school in Chicago, but as you can imagine, the huge amount of need in our student body (for physical necessities, for counseling, for English-language supports, for special education services) and the systemic inequities in school funding make Clemente a tough place to teach and learn.

And yet, despite these challenges, my classroom at Clemente was usually full of students engaging with primary and secondary sources, analyzing texts and videos and tweets, and mostly getting along pretty well. We listened to a lot of music, and had a pretty good time.

What is your current situation like? How are you interacting with students at this time?

Currently, I am attempting to teach from home. I hold daily office hours on Google Meet for my students and post a weekly “menu” on our Google Classroom page of videos, podcasts, texts, websites, and movies for students to choose from, as well as writing and creative assignments to complete based on them. I spend my afternoons attempting to reach students I haven’t heard from and grading assignments they’ve turned in.

We have a big problem in our district and school with lack of access to technology and to the internet, and so it’s been hard to get in touch with many of our students. Our students’ homes can be chaotic environments, and so not every student has a quiet place where they can focus on their work. They may be trying to share a laptop or phone among several siblings who are all home and trying to do school work. As a result, there are a good number of students who I haven’t heard anything from since we got out of school. I’m definitely worried about them.

How are you and your district stepping up for students at this time, to address issues beyond academic learning?

Schools in Chicago have continued to offer three meals a day for students and their families to pick up. Our counselors and social workers are doing digital sessions with students, and we’ve been trying to create as much of a sense of normalcy as we can for students. The poetry club I run is continuing to hold meetings, we are working on a digital college decision day and graduation ceremony, and we’ve hosted some digital dance parties for students to connect and de-stress.

That being said, I think there are a lot of needs that remain unmet. I don’t blame our school or district for that. The reality is that big urban school districts like Chicago that serve a student body with such high levels of poverty are not funded at a level where they can meet student needs, even in the best of times.

What is a success or milestone that you feel like you’ve hit since schools have been closed?

I finally connected with some students this week that I hadn’t heard from yet, and got some assignments back from them.

What remains a challenge when it comes to meeting the needs of your students?

Getting in touch with students who I haven’t heard from and making sure they’re okay. Also trying to give students with individual education plans and English language learners the supports they need to be successful. Many of these students are legally guaranteed services like periodic check-ins to keep them on task, dedicated one-on-one time with a teacher or aide, or translated materials. It’s an unprecedented time figuring out how to get kids these supports in this new environment.

What are some tips you’d give to someone in your position who is looking for ways to further support students?

Making time to communicate with parents and figure out what kinds of needs their kids have for resources to make them successful.

What do you most look forward to when you’re back at school?

Hearing the hustle and bustle of the hallways and classrooms, feeling the energy of the building, and seeing students reconnecting with their friends.

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