In America, ‘No one should feel sidelined’

The chat flew and so did the hour as 165 AFT members joined high school history teacher Sari Beth Rosenberg in hashing out what they’ve learned after more than a year of teaching in a pandemic. For remote instruction, Rosenberg said, she was forced to rethink how she teaches, and when she asked whether remote or hybrid teaching changed the way participants plan to teach next year, the answer was a resounding yes.

Sari Beth Rosenberg

On the one hand, Rosenberg said, she is excited to share her new “tricks of the trade,” but on the other hand, “I hope we never have to teach like this again. When we found out on that Friday the 13th that we all were going to do remote teaching, I had never even heard of Zoom.” 

In the workshop, “Seven Principles for Deconstructing Classroom Instruction: Moving Forward with Lessons Learned,” educators took a similarly optimistic view and were quick to point out the silver lining.  

“I’m not saying COVID was great, but I believe that we’re seeing the tip of the iceberg of the future,” said an elementary school band teacher.

“I want to take the resilience out of this period,” said another educator. “I do want to take the interactive learning out of this period. … Our kids taught us so many things, and I want to encourage them.”

Participants shared their favorite online tools, from Seesaw to Edpuzzle to Google Classroom, and from Jamboard and Padlet to Flipgrid. 

“I was telling the kids, I miss telling them to put their phones away [and] … to shut up and listen. … I missed that, and they laughed,” said Rosenberg, a member of the United Federation of Teachers who has taught for nearly two decades at the High School for Environmental Studies in New York City. 

Becoming serious, Rosenberg said that what she learned most of all was the need to connect history with current events, which “really brings kids in.” She plans to do even more of it this coming year. Early in the pandemic, her students were concerned about the spread of COVID-19 at the correctional facility on Rikers Island, so she conducted an Instagram Live discussion with a public defender. Then the murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement took hold.

Because they were studying American history, she asked students for words they associated with the word “American.” Their answers included, “No Justice, No Peace,” “We need to vote,” “Black Lives Matter,” “climate change” and “imposter country.” 

“The word that really got me was ‘sidelined,’” she said. “The student felt sidelined.” To offer an inspiring, realistic blueprint for how to make America a better place, she had students read “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation by John Lewis, the late civil rights icon and congressman. Rosenberg said, “My goal is to make sure that every American doesn’t feel sidelined. I don’t care if you’re white, Black, Asian, whatever. No one … should feel sidelined.”

Asking whether students seemed more interested in current events and activism over the past year, Rosenberg got another resounding yes. More each year, one participant said. Rosenberg recommended guiding students toward civic engagement with groups like Teens Take Charge, Voters of Tomorrow, Prom at the Polls, One Million of Us, or Poll Hero. Even if it’s just two minutes out of the lesson, she said, you can provide students with ways to channel their interests in civics, government and history so they won’t feel sidelined anymore.

The social and the emotional 

Rosenberg said she’s always been authentic with kids—she even broke tradition and smiled on her first day of teaching. You have to be authentic because if you’re not, students will call you out as being “mad fake.” 

But in the horror of the pandemic, she has kept up a bit of a wall, combining pep talk with real talk. You do not need to overshare. She recommended saying something simple like, “This is hard for me, too.”

She also said it’s important to show students other sides of yourself, like the fact that she not only is a history nerd but that she also likes to do pushups. “Our kids need to see that,” she said, “because we’re not just growing young learners and great minds, we’re growing full humans.” 

Next year, Rosenberg plans to invite speakers to livestream into her class for discussions in their areas of expertise. Authors could read from their books. An elected official could talk civics. A chat participant suggested inviting a paleontologist to do a virtual dig. 

Meanwhile, the chat grew even more intense as teachers discussed ways their students connected with history, like making TikToks on American statesman Henry Clay and Presidents Zachary Taylor and Andrew Jackson. For President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, some of Rosenberg’s students turned their profile pictures into Old Abe. 

Don’t forget after-school clubs

Rosenberg reminded the group that after-school activities are just as important as classwork. She suggested starting a student club. In her case, it was the Feminist Eagles, which launched in 2015 and still meets online. 

“We continue to meet on Fridays, all year,” she said. “There was not one Friday that I did not leave those club meetings energized. … It reminded me why I love my job.” 

[Annette Licitra]