By Dr. Downing Kress, Modern Languages Faculty
The Pandemic Year: Reflections on Teaching, Covid-19, and Social Justice in 2020-2021
If I could travel back in time to March 2020 and describe to my former self the current state of the world, I would not have believed my own words. Never would I have imagined that I would be teaching French to high school students all over the world using Zoom, a platform I had never encountered before last spring, when I was teaching literature to undergraduates at NYU. On the eve of Spring Break 2020, when the NYU administration announced that break would be extended for one more week before likely bringing everyone back to campus, I don’t think that any of us – students, teachers, researchers, administrators – were prepared for the reality that we would, in fact, not be returning to our classrooms, lecture halls, or offices for the remainder of the academic year. Never would I have imagined that the only place I would be seeing my students would be on the computer screen, and that this strange new way of teaching would a year later be as habitual and familiar as brushing my teeth. Never would I have imagined that COVID-19 would affect my day-to-day life in the ways that it has, nor would I have imagined it would structure the ways in which I teach, as well as what I teach, in the language classroom. But teaching is always a learning process, and 2020-2021 has given us much to learn.
The world has changed and we have been transformed in innumerable ways over the past year. We have been forced to be apart from one another, something that is entirely unnatural to us humans. We have adapted by replacing visits with friends and family with FaceTime calls, and by trading out classrooms and large gathering spaces for breakout rooms found on our computer screens and cell phones.
And yet, despite our adaptations to living our lives virtually, much about this past year has been very much anchored in the physical word. Obviously, the very thing that pushed us into this virtual state – the coronavirus – is physically real. COVID-19 wreaks real havoc on the body of its victims, and also on the mental, social, and physical wellbeing of us all. The physical manifestations of this “invisible enemy” are pervasive and glaring, influencing the ways we operate and affecting the rhythms of cities and towns all over the world.
As for so many others, over the spring and summer of 2020, COVID-19 was very much present for me, and part of my daily life – despite the fact that I have never tested positive for COVID. Before starting at St. Mark’s, I lived in New York City, my home for 15 years prior. Living in Brooklyn as cases of the coronavirus in the city soared, making New York the epicenter of the pandemic, the presence of the virus was palpable. From our apartment in Park Slope, my family and I heard – too frequently – ambulances flying down the street to take patients to the nearby hospital. My daughter Georgia, then around 12 months, would imitate the high-to-low wail of the sirens. It became her first animal-like sound, like another kid might imitate a barking dog.
By June, the siren sounds had become much less frequent, and were soon replaced by the comings and goings of Black Lives Matter protestors, marching for justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many other Black Americans who lost their lives to police brutality. Our two-way street, located a half block from Prospect Park, was a kind of thoroughfare for all kinds of traffic, and I would look out my window to see massive waves of people peacefully marching down the street, chanting “no justice, no peace” through their masks. It was as though the world had been set on fire by Floyd’s death and by COVID, and my city was a microcosm of this outrage, solidarity, and suffering.
While racism is certainly nothing new, the events of this past year have heightened its visibility, crystalizing for the collective consciousness the fact that it is present in every sector of our society in physical ways. The killing of Floyd and the global protests in the wake of his death, coupled with the massive health disparities revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic, have made the reality of racism more urgent and more apparent than ever – confronting us with two intertwined pandemics.
In response to the mounting data showing a disproportionate number of deaths by COVID-19 within communities of color, on April 8, 2021, the CDC – the organization that has alerted the American public to the dangers of COVID-19 – declared racism a “serious public health threat.” According to the CDC website, racism, both interpersonal and structural, “negatively affects the mental and physical health of millions of people, preventing them from attaining their highest level of health, and consequently, affecting the health of our nation . . . the impact is pervasive and deeply embedded in our society.” (https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2021/s0408-racism-health.html). Racism shapes where we live, learn, work, worship, and play, which also determines our health and contributes to health inequities. The coronavirus pandemic has thus made evident that racism, too, is a harmful sickness that, though not biological, is just as pervasive and widespread.
Having spent a summer so proximate to the visible realities of these dual pandemics, as the school year approached, I considered how I would bring these current events into my teaching. How would I translate what is happening on the streets into classroom instruction? How would I make these physical realities present and comprehensible to students learning in a virtual or hybrid language classroom? Moreover, how could processing these events with my students help me to understand them myself?
As a French teacher, I have found that the language classroom is a natural place to process and discuss the intersections of these two pervasive pandemics. Learning a language is not just a means of learning grammar and vocabulary, but a window onto how societies and peoples communicate, think, and operate. Language acquisition is thus a way to learn about and understand the topics that occupy peoples’ conversations and minds. Studying culture allows us to investigate the historical circumstances that lead to ways of thinking and being specific contexts. Cultural study is also an opportunity for self-reflection, a chance to draw connections to and understand differences between the experiences and values that dominate one’s own life and of others around the world.
In my French IV classes this year, I have attempted to weave a study of current and historical events – and in particular the physical realities of the twin pandemics of racism and COVID-19 – into the existing curriculum. Alongside learning new vocabulary and grammar, students have invested hours of synchronous and asynchronous time investigating racism and the coronavirus in a francophone context.
A unit on the role of the media in society led us to engage with French-language articles from news outlets around the world. We examined current topics including the distribution of coronavirus vaccines in Quebec, the francophone world’s reception of the election and inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, and the presence in France of the BLM movement in opposition to police brutality against black bodies. Through an online platform called TalkAbroad, students conversed with native speakers across the globe about the role that media has played in informing them about COVID, social movements, and global politics, and how these events have shaped their daily lives as well as their worldviews.
A unit on justice and politics allowed us to consider how France’s colonial past has shaped global politics and racial injustices throughout history and into the present, giving way to movements such as BLM and its francophone predecessor, négritude – a global literary and ideological movement founded in the early 20th century by black French-speaking intellectuals who sought to raise racial consciousness and affirm black identity.
That French is spoken in Haiti, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Togo, Mali, Congo, and many other nations is not coincidence, but a product of French colonization. Students learned that the French Caribbean, much like the American South, ran on a plantation economy, powered by slaves who were imported from West Africa to plant and harvest sugar and coffee. We discussed the rebellion of slaves on the island of Hispaniola, which culminated in the Haitian Revolution and Independence of 1804 – the first and only successful slave revolt to have occurred in the history of the world. The Haitian Revolution was influenced by the very ideals of liberty and equality being propagated by French and American revolutionaries – yet these ideals were, paradoxically, not granted to the peoples the French or Americans had enslaved.
Our final unit this year focuses on immigration, the engine behind our globalizing world that has made France, the United States, and many other countries pluricultural societies. A history of colonization and racism, as well as the concept of laïcité, or French secularism, has led to the ongoing controversy surrounding the wearing of the hijab by French citizens who identify as Muslim, many of whom are immigrants or the children of immigrants from nations in North Africa that were once French colonies. Most recently, students engaged with media sources and videos to investigate a current law being discussed in the French Senate that would forbid women under 18 from wearing a hijab in public. The law in part is a political response to recent violent attacks in France in the name of radical Islamism, but is also rooted in nationalism, racism, and xenophobia with colonialist origins.
History always informs the present, and so uncovering the past is crucial to understanding how racism came to be so deeply ingrained in societies across the world into the present day. It will take much more than learning about racism’s historical roots in a classroom to combat and dismantle it. But I hope that in some small way, engaging the classroom in conversations surrounding the historical origins and present realities of racism in a cross-cultural context can be a step in this direction.
With vaccines being distributed around the world, there is hope that the COVID-19 pandemic is winding down and that life can return to a semblance of pre-coronavirus normalcy. While there is no vaccine for racism, I hope that the same rigor and urgency that has been directed towards confronting and ending the coronavirus can be brought to the public health crisis of racism, to ensure the wellbeing and safety of us all.
Dr. Downing Kress is a faculty member at St. Mark’s School. She teaches French in the Modern Languages department.