Real Seniors; Virtual School

They were a subdued bunch, my seniors, as we held an online meeting for the Class of 2020. Nearly all of them joined in, some asking follow up questions to the shared doc we’d started the week before when the governor sent out word that students would not be returning to campuses this school year and that seniors would receive grades of “Pass” rather than any particular letter.

They are an exceedingly talented group of young adults, creative, curious, and today, quiet.

When my dog, Luna, hopped onto my lap, caught a buzzing fly out of the air, ate it, and then licked my face, only a couple managed a chuckle. These are serious times.

Earlier in the day I’d gotten an email from a senior teacher. He told me that for his class he had “a discussion board up since the day after we were sent home. I asked for four thread responses from each participating student. The Senior thread has nearly 300 responses. This suggests that [nearly] the entire Sr class has responded.”

These are young people who want to be connected, and while state guidelines have now removed grades from senior transcripts, many of the students want to keep that tether to learning, classmates, teachers, and school. It’s not that all of them care about English or history or math or science (though many do), but many do want to stay a part of the larger community that is our school. 

Beyond classes, we know that staying connected is important.

A CNN article came out that same day suggesting that “in the time of coronavirus, traditional hallmarks of the high school experience have all but disappeared. And as everyone settles into new routines inside, at home, teens are feeling angry, anxious and reticent. Their identities are fracturing in isolation, and the people who love them, teach them and study them fear they’ll wear the effects of the pandemic for years to come.” 

We do worry about them, but that’s nothing new, and we understand the need to support all our students, particularly right now our seniors. 

The article goes on to say that “It’s hard enough being a teenager on a good day. But the conditions that accompany social distancing may exacerbate the painful parts of adolescence to the point of crisis. Adolescents typically have a heightened reactivity to stress, thought to be the result of hormonal fluctuations and changes in brain development.”

And these are times of stress.

We talked during that first senior meeting about some of the losses of the spring: prom, performances, and commencement. Particularly commencement.

With social distancing in place, a traditional graduation ceremony isn’t possible in June. We know that, we mourn it, and we have to find a way to carry on. As a district, a district determined to support our seniors, every high school originally agreed to do a virtual commencement in June and then some kind of senior celebration in July or early August, as soon as pandemic restrictions ease enough for us to get together in person. And…

The notion of graduating online was filled with frustration for many. Me included. We want so much to have that celebration together, and hearing it can’t happen in June is a rocket of disappointment in an already pockmarked battlefield of emotion.

A couple of follow up emails captured that emotion the next morning. They were passionate, honest, and thoughtful, and showed a maturity nestled in alongside the exuberance of youth. My response to one earnest message, as limited in comfort as it might be, was from the heart. I wrote:

I share your disappointment in not being able to have a traditional commencement ceremony in person in June. It feels frustrating that after all the class of 2020 has done to reach graduation we aren’t able to celebrate together …at least not yet. 

Our hope with the virtual commencement ceremony is not to replace an in person ceremony; we know we couldn’t. To do nothing, however, felt even more wrong, as it would deny seniors a chance to have some of the good things that come from a ceremony, like student performers, student speakers, and a message from one of the staff the class has chosen. That, I believe, is why every high school and option school in the district is committing to some online event for June, and then for some in person (or as in person as we are allowed by state social distancing rules) in July.

We have another senior meeting on 4/29 about how we can make an online event as positive as it can be, and if we know more about what the lay of the land might be in later summer we can talk about that as well. Pandemic allowing, July’s celebration of seniors might be one that can have more of a commencement feel, but right now, as you mentioned, it could be limited in how many could gather. As soon as we know more we’ll work with the seniors to develop what that in person activity could be.

And if July sees us all still at home, then we’ll figure out something for August. We want the students together on campus, we want to celebrate them robustly, and we are all a bit heartbroken right now as we see the semester and end of the year slip away from us without seeing their faces except through a computer screen.

I do appreciate you reaching out. I hope you and all your family are well. I’m sorry for the disappointment, and hope that it’s not an “or” but an “and” with regard to the end of the year celebrations: a virtual commencement as every other school is doing and a meaningful (and ACMA spirited) celebration as soon as we can all be back together.”

True, maybe, but even rereading it now, my response can only go so far in reassuring seniors in these strange days. 

Discussions continued at the district level; we have six big comprehensive high schools and four smaller options schools, like ACMA, and the desire was to have everyone on the same page. The merits of simply postponing  commencement to July were championed by more than a few: students want to be together, they want the experience of walking across the stage, they want that celebration that many of them have been thinking about since the realized what a graduation was all about.

We’d like that too, and…

I’d like to be 6’3 with a full head of hair. On a more serious note, I’d like to be saying good morning to my students every day at school. I’d like to be visiting classes, watching performances, hosting open mic nights, and all of the things that right now we just can’t do. This pandemic has brought disappointment to so many of us, as well as frustration, isolation, and a feeling of missing out.

We are missing out, and disappointment about that is natural and appropriate. So too is doing what we have to do to help protect those for whom disappointment is less a worry than falling ill to COVID-19. For the health care workers, the elderly, and people with compromising preexisting conditions, this pandemic is life threatening. Every day.

Social distancing measures aren’t meant to be an inconvenience; they are meant to save lives. As a school system, an organization where we see thousands of students shoulder to shoulder every day walking to classes, we know a thing or two about germs and viruses. We know too that as much as we’d like to be on campus together, the risks of that enterprise (right now) are great. So too, commencement. Right now.

And a reality, in these days when there seems to be no agreement on how or when social distancing will loosen, is that an in person commencement still might not be able to happen by July, or even August. Add to that that teachers aren’t working in July, and some (in what look to be difficult budget times) may not even be working in the district at all, and things get more complicated still. But challenges don’t define us as much as our response to them. This experience should help us understand that. So…

In the end a lot of discussion the district decision was to shift gears away from any virtual commencement and postpone graduation ceremonies until later in the summer, July or early August. There are lots of detail still to be figured out, but if we’re able the plan is that we’ll do something in person outside, under the summer sun.

When I told my seniors about that change at our meeting this week they seemed happy about the idea. Happy-ish, anyway. These are serious times.

They are such a great group and I want, like all of the adults at ACMA, to give them everything we can give them. Seeing their faces (so many of them on our video call) reminded me of how much these students mean to me, to our school, and how much they mean to each other.

Some of our performers even performed (bringing more smiles, even muted) than almost anything anyone who wasn’t in the Class of 2020 could have done.

These are unprecedented times and as a result the unsettled sense of uncertainty is great. And, to quote Robert Frost, we still have miles to go before we sleep, so…

Screen Shot 2020-04-16 at 9.58.28 AM

Over the next few weeks many of us adults at ACMA will do our best to connect with and support our seniors. Counselors are making calls now, teachers continue to reach out to students, and my admin team will host opportunities for the seniors to get together to talk.

We’ll collaborate with our seniors to make sense of a commencement of sorts, look ahead to the time we can be together again, and do our best to understand that it’s natural to be working through the stages of grief right now. 

We also have a few surprises we hope will bring them a smile, like the yard signs our staff delivered last week, and a senior awards not-quite-ceremony we’re plotting for June.

I wish I could give my seniors a prom in May, an in person graduation ceremony in June, and the normal joy of a normal spring. I can’t. And…

We will do what we can. We will do what we can together.

The conversation during our second senior class meeting suggests to me that “what we can” might just be really good.

I keep a copy of Shakespeare’s Henry V on my desk at work. It may be the corny former English teacher in me, but I refer to it far more than you’d suspect, particularly when I need a pinch of leadership inspiration. After our senior meeting I turned to act three, scene six and the line:

We would not seek a battle, as we are;
Nor, as we are, we say we will not shun it”

None of us would have chosen to do school from our kitchen tables. None of us prefer to wrestle with the emotions of crisis without the human contact of friends and school. None of us particularly want to be facing the situation as we are, but as we are, we will not shy away from the challenges. Together we will find our voices, our community, and our laughter again.

4 thoughts on “Real Seniors; Virtual School

  1. Hi Bjorn, is’ commencement’ the same as graduation from High school? We have neither in Britain, although in recent years we have started having Proms.
    …and I’m off to hunt out my copy of Henry V , that’s a great quote. We saw a briliant production at Stratford about 4 years ago. Although my then 15 year old was more interested in the lighting rig. Sigh.

    • Commencement is the graduation ceremony and it’s a big, big event for our graduates. I’ve been fortunate to work at a couple of schools where there were unconventional twists, including my current school where student performances are an integral part of the event.

  2. Thank you, Bjorn. Your words have helped this kitchen table teacher and her frustrated college boy living in his teenage room and grudgingly ‘Zooming’ through the end of his junior year.
    ps- Austin says hello. =)

    • Hello right back at you and Austin! These are crazy times, and I’m realizing that I am a sub-par kitchen table teacher myself. We will get through this (and how nice it’s not in Austin’s senior year at college) and maybe even come out the other side changed for the better as a society. Maybe. I do wish you and yours all the best in these weird times.

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