Virtual Teacher Interview: high school ELA, the Bronx

I’ve been SO curious to hear how other teachers’ experiences were with these first few months of distance learning. My former coworker, David DeWitt (once a Bronx Compass teacher, always a Bronx Compass teacher!), gladly shared his experiences remotely teaching high school ELA at the DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. (I love that Mr. DeWitt works at DeWitt Clinton!!)

Julia: Tell me about your school and your role. What are the demographics of your school? How many students do you have? How many staff? What grades do you teach? What subjects? How long have you been there? 

David: I teach at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, which has about 1300 students in grades 9-12. The students are mostly black and Latinx, with some Arab and South Asian students. This year I taught honors sophomores and two sections of a college class in creative nonfiction, in collaboration with Syracuse University — but I have taught seniors (honors and general), juniors (ELL and general), and creative writing for juniors and seniors in the three years I’ve been at the school. (I have only been teaching high school for five years.)

Julia: In what ways was your school prepared for distance learning?

David: We had been using Google Classroom, so students and teachers were used to that. There was also some degree of collaboration in curriculum among teachers at each grade level, which increased during remote learning. The school chose to offer asynchronous lessons, having made assumptions about what our students would be able to handle.

Julia: In what ways was your school unprepared for distance learning?

David: Many of our students didn’t have internet access at home, and though the school distributed laptops to students, it took several weeks to a month. Teachers had mixed abilities at creating videos and using platforms like Google Meets and Zoom. Personally, I still need improvement at making videos.

Julia: What does your typical school day and week look like now?

David: We began with asynchronous classes. Students had at least three components to complete for every class each day; assignments and lessons were posted on Google Classroom, with a video required of the teachers (though it didn’t have to be a teacher-created video) as part of the mini-lesson. That system lasted one week. The student feedback was that the work was too overwhelming, especially for homes with multiple students who needed computer time; students were also pressed into extra home service for child care and other chores. The administration then had us go to a new week, with office hours each day: Monday was a makeup day (no classes); Tuesday and Wednesday were for social studies, physical education, and math; Thursday and Friday were for English, electives, and science. Most classes also cut down the amount of work required for each student, though some continued asking for three components each day. That was for the first marking period of remote learning. In the last marking period, the administration felt that student grades and engagement were down, and he reduced the workload even further: to a two-day project for each subject. There was no instruction the last marking period other than how to do these two days of classwork. (I’ll add that I felt this wasn’t successful. Student engagement went down, and as I taught only honors students, I had much higher engagement in the first marking period of remote learning.) 

Julia: What platform do you use to teach (Zoom, Google Classroom, etc.)? What are the pros and cons of that platform? 

David: Google Classroom, with Google Meets for office hours and conferences. (Our school felt Zoom was not secure.) The pros were that the students were used to getting their work that way and received e-notifications when new lessons had been posted. The cons were that, aside from the videos we prepared and attached, the students weren’t getting person-to-person teaching, and many skimmed over any lessons to try to rush to complete the work. I had good engagement the first marking period of remote learning, but not the second (when we “taught” the administration-conceived project). 

Julia: What’s the funniest thing that happened so far during distance learning?

David: Some of my students created videos as part of their final project, and they did a good job with a sense of humor!

Julia: How do you think kids are handling this time emotionally? What should other teachers and schools prioritize?

David: Students’ emotions were mixed. Some voiced that they were very depressed and had trouble being responsible for their work, particularly in observing deadlines. (Some voiced being depressed yet did their work in a timely fashion.) Some were frustrated to be home because their family life was stressful; school had been their escape. While some of our students needed flexible schedules because of home demands and siblings, I’m not sure they wouldn’t have fared better with some sort of schedule. However, I’d say more than half of my particular students coped as well as could be expected. As for what “other teachers and schools [should] prioritize,” we chose to make it as easy on them as possible to get passing grades. I think we were considerate of their mental health and their family situations, but I can’t say I think they got much education out of their three months of remote learning. Maybe my college classes did, but not my honors sophomores, where I shared a curriculum and lessons with my 10th grade teaching team. I think we would’ve been better off going with individual lessons and not using the administration-created two-day final project for the last marking period. Students could have done more.

Julia: What do you think will happen in the fall? Is full-time distance learning the future of education?

David: We’re told to expect a “blended” situation, with some in-person classes (possibly socially distanced, so a max of say 10 students a class) and remote learning. In our planning so far we have been required to use a shared curriculum for each grade team, with sharing of lesson plans as well. (I personally hate this.) But really, the plans are totally in doubt — our school district (the New York City Department of Education) has not been able to describe what the fall will be like; in fact, they can’t even describe what summer school will be like, aside from it all being remote. My best guess is that we’ll start out totally remote in September; New York State has been very cautious about exposure to covid, and I don’t expect the summer will see the reduction of cases that some hope for. I HATE the idea of starting the year without meeting my students in person. Absolutely hate it. But I’m expecting it.
However, I don’t feel that full-time distance learning is the future of education. If anything, this remote learning period has reinforced the need for an in-person teacher for lessons, motivation, and engagement. Our administration has acknowledged that, and I certainly feel that way as a teacher. 

David is finishing the last week of school this week – send him happy thoughts!

I was incredibly interested to hear David’s experience with distance learning, because his school has been characterized as a “tough” school in the Bronx for years. But I’m happy to report David says the school has increased their graduation rates, with an expected graduation rate of 82% this year, with graduates attending Stanford and other top universities.

I often thought about what I would have been doing during this pandemic if I still worked at my first school in the Bronx. It makes me proud to know David and his coworkers are there for their students, but I definitely feel melancholy reading some of David’s descriptions.

I want to take this moment to highlight some of the disparities in the NYCDOE high school system. DeWitt Clinton is ranked 262 out of the NYCDOE’s 548 schools (bear in mind, the schools from 308 down are actually unranked…, and some of the USNEWS data is out of date). DeWitt Clinton had a student die of coronavirus this year, and earlier this year a teen was jumped and seriously hurt outside of the school. Meanwhile, just a 10 minute walk south from the school lands you at The Bronx School of Science, ranked 5th of all NYCDOE schools. Bronx Science has a 100% graduation rate and boasts Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winners as its alumni. What do you have to do to go to this magnet school as opposed to the other public school down the block? Just get an outstanding score on the SHSAT, NYC’s mini SAT administered to 8th graders. Ah, standardized testing, the great equalizer *she says sarcastically*. This is the opportunity gap in action. When I first started teaching, I wondered why schools in the NYCDOE were SO different. The thought of a single district in upstate New York, where I grew up, having SUCH different outcomes for different schools is unfathomable. It’s unfair. It’s inequitable. Why is it ok for the city? Why does it happen in the city? Well, despite both being public NYCDOE schools, DeWitt Clinton can’t compete with Bronx Sciences $20 Million+ endowment. I believe all students should have access to a high quality, free, public high school education. I believe many changes need to happen before we achieve this.

Thinking many thoughts,


Corrections: DeWitt Clinton is expecting an 82% graduation rate (not the previously mentioned 55% graduation rate).

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