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The Pandemic Year: Reflections on Teaching, Covid-19, and Social Justice in 2020-2021

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.

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A Year of Fear: Reflections on the Pandemics of Covid and Racism

By Mr. Adam Jewell, History and Social Sciences Department Head

A Year of Fear: Reflections on the Pandemics of Covid and Racism

The flash and noise of sirens, the rush of adrenaline and fear, constant fear, all-around you, rushing out the door, jumping in an ambulance, and racing off to the hospital, is scary, to say the least. In the winter of 2016 and 2017 and again in 2018 this was the norm for my family, my daughter, all of one year old, growing into being a toddler spent winters suffering from RSV to the point that going to the doctor’s office, would lead to a trip to the hospital, often the ICU, NICU when she was really young. As Covid began to overtake us, first through stories and conversations with advisees from China and South Korea, and then finally here at our doorstep, these fears that seemed to have disappeared as she got older came roaring back. We shut down our campus, public schools also closed, and the thought of even interacting with others became a daily fear, a fear that brought back the days of doctor’s visits and ambulance rides and the very legitimate fear that my daughter just could not breathe.

Juxtapose that with the reality of my black and brown friends, peers and students. Look around at the overwhelming fear of violence and even death that surrounds them. These did not start with George Floyd’s murder, nor did they start with my most visible memory of police violence from my life, that being Rodney King. Indeed, as an historian, the long, destructive impact of systemic racism, lynchings and chattel slavery are chilling realities of the African American experience I spent nearly thirty years of my life researching, learning, and talking about. Those words, “I can’t breathe” etched into our collective memory by Eric Garner and the very fact that my own daughter often could not breathe represent to me personally the twin pandemics we are faced with today: systemic racism and Covid.

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Chapel Talk: The Year of the Prolonged Out-of-Body Experience

By Ms. Shelly Killeen, History and Social Sciences Faculty

Chapel Talk: The Year of the Prolonged Out-of-Body Experience

2020 is the year of the prolonged out-of-body experience. I don’t know about the rest of you, but more often than not, I feel like I am watching some bizarre version of my existence play out in front of me. I don’t know how to be a good teacher in this weird, half-in-person, half-on-Zoom format. I don’t know how to make Maple feel like home when everyone pretty much stays in their own room. I don’t know how to stay connected with my advisees about life at St. Mark’s when they aren’t here on campus. In general, I don’t feel like I know what I am doing. But that also describes much of my life at St. Mark’s before the pandemic.

First, I am the head coach for our girls’ squash program. I love coaching. And I played a lot of different sports growing up, so I would be pretty comfortable coaching in a lot of different programs. But I am NOT a squash player. I went to public school; I come from a blue-collar family and went to college on financial aid: not generally the demographic of squash players. And I’ve played tennis since I was four years old. No, tennis is not like squash. They both involve racquets. That’s about all they have in common. 

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