Teaching During a Pandemic

As the summer wore on, the Covid-19 pandemic marched on and on and on. I wondered how I could help with the education of one of my grandchildren. When a curriculum and content text arrived in the mail, I began drawing up a plan for our first lesson together. Since my grandchild will visit over the next week, we will begin a dry run of in-person lessons, which will then shift to online sessions. It’s my plan to do a comprehensive program during the year, and I haven’t been far off of the mark in planning to help because New York City schools announced a second postponement of in-person classes to be supplemented by online instruction. I noted my observations on these pages (“Online Education in a Time of Grave Danger,” CounterPunch, May 2020) about what I witnessed in June of the last school year regarding the online instruction that my grandchild received and it was not a pretty picture. I hope for improvement with the latter. I noted the difficulty some kids around the country encountered because of issues with access to the Internet, etc.

A forty-year veteran of public education, I am opposed to both home instruction, but not educational enhancement, and charter schools, but I refuse to let another school year pass by without being of use, an idea I picked up from John Irving’s novel The Cider House Rules (1993).

When I taught traditional college classes, part time, I supplemented the course text with an additional selection every year in which students and I could explore the educational strategies we learned in a real format. It’s a kind of takeoff of learning by doing. During one year, E. D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Cultural Literacy (1988) was popular, and I liked the themes he presented in the book despite detractors sometimes accurately critiquing some of his work regarding diversity. But Hirsch was still onto something about the gaps in US education that demanded attention.

When I began a search for a curriculum and content guide at my grandchild’s academic level, I remembered that Hirsch had met criticism and produced a body of writing that could teach kids at several grade levels and was pleased that student diversity had been considered and included in revisions of the What Every [grade levels] Needs to Know (2005).

I enjoyed preparing the first lesson that included three poems, a part of that lesson which connected one poem to a lesson in science, and a myth. Besides our learning together, I plan to extend the lesson into a short research project and writing exercise.

Preparing the first few lessons, I used a folktale from the program, a story of power relationships from Ethiopia. It seems that some of the criticisms of Hirsch’s work have been met in his program’s revision. Not a purist in terms of finding useful teaching tools, I found a renewed interest in teaching that years of teaching at the community college level had somewhat dampened.

During the 1960s or early 1970s, I remembered that a revolutionary slogan had involved teaching literacy skills and strategies as a revolutionary principle of action. I dismissed that idea as naïve during that epic period of world revolution, but have come back to it of late.

I’m considering extending the program that I’m using with my grandchild out into the community using the Internet, but that idea is only at the beginning stages.

While lesson planning and teaching offer some respite from the specter of growing fascism, the storm that is gathering around the election and replacing the late Justice Ginsburg demands that leftists look at the possibility of full-blown fascism taking hold in the US. The ruling class nod to the growth of fascism is now front and center. This nation could become very ugly, very fast. For many people of color, working-class people, and immigrants, it is already that ugly. For those the US targets through war it is that ugly. A splintered and small left in the wilderness will be no match for the forces of the far right.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).