Noelle: You know, I think there's some merit in that, [the idea] of too much “device time,” and [a student thinking,] “I want to be able to see [a physical task] and have it accomplished. I would like to then be able to turn it back in and have a connection with my teacher beyond the computer.” There's merit and there's some passion and heart behind that that I think we could continue to uncover.
I did not know Newark was broken into wards. Communities get used to certain types of communication, but the fact that your superintendent and your mayor got behind and supported creating recorded calls that could go out to families to communicate was a really strong part of elevating your overall success and what you could do.
Did you have any students who you, you know, never got back in touch with? I mean, I've been reading about virtual dropouts and just the sense of students who did not communicate at all during this time. Did you experience that, and how did you all go about doing everything and anything that you could to make that connection?
Priyank: As soon as we found out that we were going to be virtual learning indefinitely. . . because at first we were like, “Maybe it'll be a month, maybe a month and a half, and we’ll be back around May-ish or June.” The first thing we did was we established a council and we established a team.
The counselors and some of the support staff were actually assigned to specific content areas of specific teachers, and their main responsibility was to just call families who we could not get in touch with. As a teacher, for example, I had sent out a lot of information because I knew the first thing we did—and I think that was me being proactive—one of the things I always do in the beginning of the year is I have [students] join my Google classroom. And at the time, even though we were not going to use it as much, [I’d say] “You're going to join the Google classroom, and then every now and then, maybe once a month or something, we'll log in. And that way, you're used to just joining the classroom, you know where to go to find this information.”
There [were] some students we knew that already joined Google classroom, and I was able to communicate to those students via Google classroom. Unfortunately, even though they had joined Google classroom, as soon as virtual learning started, there was no response. So for example, if I sent a message out to the student on a Monday, by Friday there would be no response. The next week, there would still be no response.
So, what we did was I would try to call the students’ families using whatever information I was given. If that family member or the student wasn't able to respond to me in a timely fashion, then I would give that information to the counselor or the person that was assigned to me, and we would try to reach that student.
Some of the time, we were successful, and the student would reach back to us. For example, two or three of my students said, “Listen, Mr. Pri, I've been trying my best to sign up and trying my best to do work, but it's just very difficult because of the timing. You know, I get up; I go to work.”
[One particular] student works at ShopRite...she was working while this was going on, technically, because she was an essential worker. So, she was working at a regular job. And then one of the sessions we had was in the morning, so she was working during those times. By the time she would come home—she had younger siblings—so she was always doing something family-related.
We noticed that that was the main reason why it was so difficult for us to contact each other. In that case, we established a system in which, every week, I would just email her the work. And instead of her joining my sessions, she would get an email that would say, “If you have questions, email me back; you can send me the completed work whenever you can.” And what she did was—as I mentioned about the paper—she would write her answers in a notebook, take pictures, and send me those pictures, instead of going into the computer, because that was too much for her. She would just write out the answers in the notebook and send me the pictures because that was faster and more convenient for her.
Noelle: Can I ask you to shift then, Pri, to the social-emotional learning side for yourself? I'd like you to think about yourself for a moment. How did you transition from that bright, energetic [teacher]? I remember you always on the move in that classroom. I never saw you sit down. I never saw you not moving your eyes around, looking for where you needed to move to work towards supporting a group of students. What was your own transition going from [being] a very social leader at the school physically to being virtual?
Priyank: Thank you for that question. I think the first thing was about energy. So, when I was logging into the sessions and I saw how the students were not focused or engaged, and I just saw the lack of energy, I said, “Well, I have to be the energetic one.” So, even [in] the virtual sessions, I was energetic. I was loud. I was a little obnoxious, you know, just going through like, “Oh, I see you watching a movie while I have my session. Oh, I see you texting your boyfriend.” I would just make these little comments here and there. They're like, “No, no, I'm checking my work.” We'll kind of joke around here and there. If I was energetic, if I was being this person that was positive, you know, I was hoping that would transfer to the students as well, and they would bring some energy, at least, to the classroom.
In that sense, emotionally, even though I knew this was a challenge because I'm not used to not being able to be there physically with the students, not being able to see where they're at, helping them get through the process.
It was definitely challenging, but, just like the students, I had to adjust. As long as I brought that energy with me, as long as I showed them that I was still there and I was still the same Mr. Pri, we're going to fool around and make them work as hard as possible. I think hopefully they would meet me at least halfway and then bring on that kind of energy. Bring on the engagement of focus and motivation.