There has been so much 2020

Painting of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter sign at a protest march in the summer of 2020 (Google images)

This year has been…a lot. It has shouted itself in our faces relentlessly every single harrowing day. Through this era of strife, there have been moments that have allowed me to have hope that we will come through the fire and be better and stronger for it. Happy New Year to you all. May you have some hope and some joy every day of the coming year.

Here is an excerpt from Inquiry-Based Learning through the Creative Arts for Teachers and Teacher Educators, which I co-authored with Molly Sherman and was published this year by Palgrave MacMillan.

Teaching and Learning in the Upside Down – Amanda Gulla

For many teachers, working with traumatized students is part of what we have come to expect. In the Bronx, where I received the entirety of my K-12 education and have subsequently spent the majority of my teaching career, poverty and its concomitant ills are all too commonplace. For many students, school is a refuge where there are friends, caring adults, and comforting predictability, so the loss of daily close contact with that community—even for those in stable environments—can be somewhat traumatic. Within the City University of New York (CUNY), as in many public universities, a significant number of our students are the first in their families to pursue higher education. Their path to a degree is often long and winding, as their lives can be complicated and precarious.

A pandemic temporarily shuttering schools from kindergarten through university may seem like a singularity that we should all be able to put our heads down and simply get through. Nevertheless, the fact is that even under “normal” circumstances, we are almost always teaching traumatized students. Sometimes teachers themselves may be traumatized as well. Denny Taylor (2006) writes about teachers in places like Rwanda and post-Katrina New Orleans living in refugee camps or trailers alongside their students. When talking about the support teachers provided for children and their families, members of the community remarked “that’s what school people do,” and “Teachers know how to work with people. I honestly believe that we saved lives” (p. 13). But there is an emotional cost to all of this courage and generosity. Over the years as I have served as a program adviser, many novice teachers have sat in my office and wept, complaining of stress, anxiety, lack of sleep, scattered concentration, and poor health. This is partly due to the fact that even under “normal” circumstances teaching is an enormously challenging job, demanding that teachers attend to the intellectual and emotional well-being of students with a broad range of complex needs and backgrounds. A middle or high school teacher might be responsible for as many as 150 or more students in any one given school year. It is no wonder that the pressures of this job sometimes can seem unbearable. That is why it is so important as we prepare candidates by exposing them to content and methodology to help them build an effective teaching practice, that we also allow space for their humanity. This is not just about being kind, although the world could certainly use as much kindness as possible. Adopting a caring approach toward teacher candidates helps to create a space that frames teaching and learning as a shared human endeavor in which all participants have agency. Having a sense of agency helps students to take ownership of their learning.

Teaching, generally speaking, is an optimistic vocation, especially when our students face adversity and continue showing up every day. We teach because we believe that with committed and compassionate nurturing and guidance, the next generation will be equipped to build successful lives in a complex and sometimes hostile world. The more adversity our students face, the more it behooves us to look past a skills-based curriculum to include ideas and materials that help them to see themselves as thinkers and creators. Fully engaged teaching is a relationship that calls for empathy and an interest in one’s students’ voices and identities. There has been a substantial body of research documenting the essential role of caring in K-12 education. Noddings (2005) describes teaching as a “moral enterprise” (p. 12) that is concerned with students’ “full human growth.” This need to account for students’ humanity does not end with high school graduation. In her book Connected Teaching (2019), Harriet Schwartz advocates for a pedagogy in which college teachers engage students in ways that “express care and convey enthusiasm” (p. 33).

Academic advising in a teacher education program involves helping adult students cope with the challenges and tensions of managing their dual roles as teachers and students, alongside whatever other challenges their lives might bring. This semester in addition to being an adviser, I was teaching two methods seminars: a graduate capstone course in curriculum design and a course in methods of teaching writing that consisted of a mix of undergraduate and graduate students. Both classes were lively and intimate. Students seemed to feel comfortable incorporating their personal stories and beliefs into much of their writing, and were supportive and encouraging of each other. The pedagogical style of these methods classes can be described as experiential learning, which Dewey (1934) explains as “the large and generous blending of interests at the point where the mind comes in contact with the world” (p. 278). Integrating both language-based and non-language-based art forms into the curriculum of an English Education program places teacher candidates on a more even footing with their students who may be struggling readers, requiring that they attend closely to unfamiliar material and actively engage in a meaning-making process. The overlapping vocabularies of the various arts can help students gain a deeper understanding of the terminology of the Language Arts classroom. We can all recall standardized exams requiring multiple choice or short answers about tone and mood, symbolism and metaphor in the context of studying canonical works of literature. We can gain so much more depth of knowledge through prolonged shared inquiry into the experience of tone and the significance of metaphor in paintings, songs, poems, and films in addition to books. The syllabi of those two courses was carefully crafted around these beliefs and values, and usually that meant that we would all gather around a text or a work of art (some unpacking of what we mean by “texts” and “works of art” in the next chapter) and undertake an involved communal process of inquiry that includes discussion, artmaking, and reflection. 

Suddenly in the middle of the spring semester the Covid-19 pandemic struck, and our campus shut down. All students, faculty, and staff had to abruptly adapt to teaching, advising, and everything else online. My first question in preparing for this shift in my own teaching was how I could keep that energy alive when the only way we could gather was to view each other on our screens, in glitchy little rectangles surrounded by the distractions of home. For teacher candidates, participating in their own education while they were also teaching online was an exercise in being in two places at once, not fully present in either. I was new to teaching online; particularly teaching live classes via web-based meeting platforms.

Early on, I saw that the questions I needed to address were much broader and more urgent than how I might translate my syllabus full of workshop-oriented discussions and group activities into an online platform. Students were at best disoriented, at worst traumatized. Some found themselves living crammed cheek-by-jowl with family members or roommates who were now home all the time, taking up space and precious bandwidth needed for all of the Zooming and Googling required of them.  As the semester wore on, more and more students were losing family members or getting sick themselves. Businesses closed, people were frozen in place at home. As the poet Wallace Stevens (1954) might have noted, the house was quiet, but the world was most definitely not calm. Practically everyone was locked down in a state of anxiety.

All of our teacher candidates who had suddenly been thrust into the virtual world were contending with figuring out online platforms that were new to them and trying to make sure that both they and their students had access to the equipment they needed. At the same time, many of their students were in difficult situations themselves. Their parents were suddenly unemployed, or some parents were essential workers—doctors, nurses, EMTs, grocery or pharmacy clerks, postal carriers, delivery drivers. So many families whose lives may have been precarious to begin with found their situations upended.

I needed a metaphorical framing (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980) to help me to grasp what we were living through, how I should be feeling, thinking, and acting, and how specifically to adapt my teaching to meet the moment. The philosopher Maxine Greene (1997) offers the understanding that, “A metaphor not only involves a reorientation of consciousness, it also enables us to cross divides, to make connections between ourselves and others, and to look through other eyes” (p. 391). Such metaphorical ways of naming experiences helps us to form a contextual understanding. We can think “I know what this is, I’ve seen it before.” Right away, I began thinking of the multiple layers of catastrophe consisting of the pandemic, the lockdown, the hidden danger to all, the grotesquely callous and incompetent reaction by the federal government, the bizarrely aggressive resistance in some parts of the country to taking measures designed to protect the vulnerable, as the “upside down.” The term “the upside down” comes from a science fiction television show called Stranger Things, and it describes an alternate universe in which everything appears as a distorted, sinister version of the world in which we live. It was a term I used initially only in my own mind, but then I heard others using it too. The “upside down” was our new zeitgeist. This metaphorical framing of living in the upside down helped me shift the priorities of the course to suit the moment. Having a metaphor helped me begin to understand how to think about what was going on, how so many people seemed to be feeling and behaving. For Anne McCrary Sullivan (2009), metaphors are about “tying the abstraction to the concrete things that make it possible to know in the body what it means” (p. 113). The understanding that we were living in “the upside down” provided some guidance on how to proceed–at least as far as accepting the fact that whatever this was, it was not our normal lives.

I found that I could not concentrate on anything for very long and noted shifts in my sleeping pattern. Even though I was safe and comfortable at home during this pandemic lockdown, I was not okay, and I quickly discovered that neither were most of my students. The best way to meet the moment, I thought, was with empathy, flexibility, and stability. Our classes would continue to meet via online meeting platforms at the same time and day as we had when we were on campus. We would stick to the original syllabus as much as possible (stability). Each class would begin with some check-in time, allowing students to talk about whatever they needed to, and I made myself available to students who needed to talk outside of class time. I would also make sure to keep the workload manageable and replace some of our class assignments with ones that acknowledged the realities of the moment (empathy). Several students reached out during the semester because they were ill, or a family member was hospitalized, or because they confided that they just could not break through their depression and anxiety that week. I told them not to worry about showing up to class, just make sure they checked in with me at least once a week and handed in the assignment when they felt able (flexibility).

Once we made a shift to online classes, there was a drop in average weekly attendance from 90% before the lockdown to about 60% during the lockdown. On the other hand, the rate of on-time submission of assignments went from 70% to 90%.  Students commented both anecdotally and in their written reflections that the shift in emphasis from formal study of lesson planning and curriculum study to writing that was more personal, reflective, and creative made the work feel manageable, and even enjoyable. One student remarked that she looked forward to the weekly assignments, and that they helped her to feel grounded.                                             

 Maxine Greene (2001) spoke of the power of art to heal, and the important role the arts must play in education at all levels if we truly value “wide awakeness” in our citizenry. She wrote of the social imagination, the “capacity to invent visions of what should be and what might be in our deficient society, on the streets where we live, in our schools” (1995, p. 5). That capacity moves people “to hold someone’s hand and act” (1998). To trudge forward with my syllabus of lesson plans and assessments suddenly made no sense to me. The only thing that really did make sense was to bring into the center of my teaching specific works of art that would act as an invitation or a provocation to help the students access their voices in this time of isolation and uncertainty.

While I was rethinking teaching, I felt the need to call upon my inner resources in order to be able to use my creative voice to process this unprecedented moment. I had always turned to poetry to make sense of difficult times. I wanted to read and write poems to heal myself, and to offer some balm to my students, which they might in turn offer to their own students.

From the very beginning of this period of isolation and shutdown I began thinking of Mary Oliver, whose poems live on my shelves and in my memory as old friends. It is her ability to explain the most universal aspects of the human experience through the lens of a wild animal, a shoreline, or a field of wildflowers that has always drawn me to her writing. Her thorough devotion to engaging the natural world in a dialogue illuminates universal aspects of the human experience through the power of metaphor. Her poem Wild Geese (1986, p. 111) had always been a favorite of mine, and now it played constantly on a loop in my mind, especially the line: You only have to let the soft animal of your body/love what it loves.”

Each day I woke up and put on my quarantine uniform of soft, comfy gray pants, t-shirt, and hoodie; an outfit in which I felt like the human embodiment of fog. Never had I been so keenly aware of the sense of myself as a soft animal. I recalled an evening at dinner with a lively group of artists and educators at an academic conference, the kind of event that now seemed magically remote. I had been mocking myself for existing so much inside my head, that I sometimes had to remind myself that I had a body. Immediately, performance artist and scholar Celeste Snowber turned to me and said with a great sense of authority that I don’t have a body, I am a body. Now, while I struggled to find balance as the pandemic rocked our worlds, I was able to find some comfort in this astonishingly simple truth. I am a body. Words were failing me, so I would simply have to trust and allow my body to love what it loves, and to know what it knows.

I took Oliver’s gentle command personally, even literally. In its straightforward and simply worded permissions to opt out of some of life’s harsh restrictions, this poem carries a sense of possibility. If only we can learn to forgive ourselves and let go of some of our burdens, we might understand that we all have a place in “the family of things,” and take comfort in knowing that the world goes on.

Only suddenly, the world was not going on-at least not in its usual manner. From the perspective of someone like me, who was able to work from home in a safe and comfortable environment, this could be seen as a blessing within the catastrophe. What an unprecedented opportunity to be creative and productive! What an unheard-of gift of time! In reality, for the first few weeks, I was unable to sleep or concentrate. Even in my circumstances, tucked away with my beloved in a cozy cottage in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York with plenty of everything we needed, I had to acknowledge that the trauma of this pandemic was affecting me. The radio, newspapers, social media, all were wall-to-wall COVID-19. Everything else had ground to a halt. I thought constantly of the heart wrenching final line from another of Oliver’s poems, The Summer Day (1990)

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

Thinking of that line as time ticked away, and the mere passing of time without any productivity from me apart from teaching my classes, advising my anxious and bewildered students, and doing basic household chores, left me in a state of mild despair. I ached to write, both because my heart and mind ached for the ecstatic feeling of capturing a moment with language and because my personal and professional identity is bound up with my verbal output. I would walk around the house repeating lines of Wild Geese quietly to myself, whispering, “You do not have to be good,” writing my own lines in between the lines of the poem, trying to hold a conversation with the poem as if Mary Oliver were speaking these words directly to me as I told her of my despair, hoping that she might help me make sense of it. This dialogue I was writing with Oliver’s poems was a way of trying to rouse myself back to consciousness and corral my own attention. These poems were medicine, and in order for this medicine to have its full healing effect I needed to fully engage by writing back to those lines that truly felt like lifelines. Here is the first draft of that dialogue poem:

What Will You Do With Your One Wild and Precious Quarantine? (an homage to Mary Oliver)

The soft animal of my body loves

to push its tangled head under the pillow,

dip into this unimaginable bounty of time.

Who among us hasn’t wished that we could

stop our spinning planet for a moment?

Just long enough to catch our breath.

Tell me about despair, yours…                                             

                                                            …I carry my breath and blood through death every day.

I’ll tell you about despair, mine…

                                                            …What if I never want to leave home again?

Now we pause long enough to see the hands and hearts,

the lungs and legs that move the engine that drives the world.

Let my dreams do all the excavating

layers of tasks to find at the bottom

this homely mundane beast

shuffling through rooms

touching objects in the proscribed universe

of things it is safe to touch.

We live inside snow globes.

We are beautiful when shaken.

Beginning with the images conjured up by “the soft animal of your body,” I wanted to commit to words the bodily manifestation of my emotional state. The knowledge of the grim reality of this deadly pandemic that the whole world was experiencing at once felt to me and many others who were tucked away at home like a surreal and endless snow day. I needed to sort out my confusion and dissonance, my shattered attention, through the vehicle of poetic inquiry. This need felt physical, as well as emotional and intellectual. Sullivan writes of the role of intuition in a poet’s work as “something biologically real, a cognitive process that arises from being finely attuned to the signals that our physiology delivers from unconscious perception” (2009, p. 112).

My intuition told me that I needed some structural support to get me started. Those kind and gentle lines of Oliver’s were just what I needed. Doing that bit of writing set me on a path back to my writer’s voice.

Maxine Greene often spoke and wrote of “lending a work of art one’s life” (2001, p. 128). This involves a reciprocal relationship, where one is not simply studying and cataloging the product of another person’s imagination, but engaging it in dialogue by “deeply noticing,” (Holzer, 2007) questioning, and artmaking. For Greene, to “engage imaginatively” with a work of art allows one to “discover possibilities in your own body, your own being” (2001, p. 80).

As I was struggling to do my work as a poet, I was also searching for a way to engage with my students that would feel meaningful, that would acknowledge the current realities while still being true to the learning goals set forth in the beginning of the semester. The realities those students faced varied quite a bit. Some were still teaching their middle or high school classes online, while perhaps also having to care for their own children or elderly parents. Some were at risk or had loved ones who were gravely ill, others were safe at home but dazed and depressed, and some lacked adequate technology to be able to teach or learn online. Because we had been engaging with works of art all semester, it made sense to figure out ways to continue in that mode with shifts in the logistics of presentation and discussion to adapt to our new circumstances.

Before our campus had shut down, the graduate students in the curriculum course had studied the paintings of Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and the songs from Rhiannon Giddens’ album Freedom Highway, in which she performs songs she has written that give a voice to historical events from slavery through the civil rights movement. The class had written poems in response to the New York Times’ 1619 Project–a series of articles, essays, photographs, and poems that address the lasting impacts of slavery on American society. Meanwhile, the students in the writing methods course had just written epistles modeled on Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Having established the practice of inquiry through creative response, it now seemed time to cut through the multiple layers of distress by teaching them to engage in dialogue with images–some recognized works of art, some of their own creation. Even better would be for those who were teaching or would eventually become teachers to be able to guide their own students through this process that might offer them some clarity and perhaps even solace on the way to developing their skills as writers.

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