A Teacher’s Perspective
Teaching outside the box—no, not the catchphrase, I’m being a lot more literal here—I mean outside that little box called the classroom. Now distance learning is not a new concept. It’s been around almost as long as I’ve been in the profession, it’s just this is not the kind of ‘outside the box thinking’ I’m used to. I teach in a classroom. I look my students in the eye. They annoy me. I annoy them. We reach some sort of mutual understanding and education happens.
You see I like talking to kids in my classroom, asking them what they think and being able to respond in the instant, as well as orchestrate numerous voices and ideas. I look over students’ shoulders while they’re working and offer advice—on the spot; in the moment. But all that has been ripped away from me. My students are now scattered across Alberta, some are even in other provinces. We no longer talk and banter, agree or disagree. We don’t even have the luxury of annoying each other anymore.
All thanks to ‘The Beast’, that vicious fire that did more than tear my city apart. Like a tornado, on May 3rd before the school day was over, it picked up all my students and tossed them miles away from me.
A couple of days of insanity and confusion passed. My district, Fort McMurray Catholic Schools, made the most sensible decision at the time, which was to let students know they were all moving forward next year. This was a great relief for all but it did little to stem the overwhelming fear my grade 12 students were suffering. They believed, at the time of evacuation, and for a few days following, that they were still going to have to write their diploma. I knew they would be worried, scared and uncertain about their futures. So, as soon as my husband and I were safe in Edmonton with friends, I reached out digitally to my students.
My first question was ‘are you safe?’ Nothing else mattered until that was answered. I cannot effectively express the relief I felt when students and parents started responding and informing me of their status. With that weight off my shoulders I sent an email to all parents and students asking if, once they were settled, anyone wants to improve their final grade.
My grade 12 students were the first to respond. Their need was immediate and they were thinking about qualifying for post-secondary institutions. These kids needed something now, and something that didn’t require textbooks. I also wanted to ensure success so, following the advice of the ages, ‘write what you know’ and adding to that my favorite ingredient, make it personal, I decided to have my students write a testimonial about the evacuation. I had them write about what happened, what they saw, felt and thought as they fled our burning city.
I had tapped into the student writer gold mine! The responses I got were off the chart brilliant! Some of the work I received was so good The Guardian Eyewitness online newspaper in the UK published their work in their online expose of the Fort McMurray Fire (with parent and student permission, of course). The journalist I was working with said she wanted to hear more about all the amazing acts of kindness Fort McMurray citizens have experienced, which brought on assignment number two: the Gratitude piece. I asked my students to write about the random acts of kindness strangers imparted on them, what this says about humanity, and to consider ways they may pay this kindness forward in the future. Again, I struck gold! My students emailed me work I had never conceived they were capable of. I have been humbled by their written expression!
Email has proved a valuable educational tool. I have been using it for years. I have never been happier with myself for having taken the time necessary to compile all parent and student emails than I have been those first few weeks of the evacuation. In the past it was my first means of communication keeping parents and students aware of the work assigned in class. Since the evacuation, it has helped me reach out to parents and students and use it as one way to keep their education alive and improve their intellectual acumen.
Read a selection of student essays at www.yourmcmurraymagazine.com