Keep Calm and Teach On in the Time of Corona

|   Distance Learning

by Tintin Ongpin-Montes, Manila Waldorf School, Philippines

 “Don’t forget to finish your Renaissance portraits! J, take your soft pastels home. And your oral reports—remember that they’re due next week; finish your research, Class 9!” Everyone simply threw me a glance. Laughter, lunchboxes, and tumblers clanging and adding to the energy in the room, the students eager to have their morning break and chitchat with their classmates, my words lost in the din. 

Class 9 and I ended our History through Art main lesson on that Monday morning of March 9, exhilarated and inspired. We had just begun looking at the Renaissance masters’ paintings, and tried to see the marked difference from the sacred art of the Medieval Ages. “I think the Renaissance is my favorite period, Ms. Tintin,” one particularly artistic ninth grader mused. I smiled at her, thinking of how she would say this about every artistic era that we had studied. I kept the thought to myself and thanked the Angels for a Monday that went fine. 

Little did we know that this would be the last day of our class and of being physically in school. Just like that, life changed for all of us.

The school year ended abruptly for us at the Manila Waldorf School. Although earlier, we had had to cancel the First Asian Waldorf Upper School Teachers Conference that we were hosting this April, we still did not anticipate that things would turn out this way. Word was already going around that the government would impose drastic measures to quell the pandemic, but no one thought that it would be this soon. After all, we were gearing up for major events that would highlight the end of our school year: Knighthood Ceremony for Class 7, the Class 8 I-Do Project presentations, Survival Camp and Rite of Passage Ceremony; the High School Prom; the Class 12 Play and their Senior Graduation Ceremony. The month of March and the first week of April were indeed going to be our school’s last hurrah, a triumphant curtain call to a school year marked with days and days of cancelled classes due to typhoons, floods, and even a cataclysmic volcanic eruption.

Lockdown and no goodbye

Soon, teachers and students were frantically messaging each other in disbelief upon learning that the local government had ordered schools to close for the rest of that week. Still, we were optimistic, thinking that we were going to stay home for only a week of quarantine and then we’d be back in school again. We were wrong, of course. On Thursday evening, President Duterte declared a Luzon-wide lockdown effective that weekend, prompting many people to panic and fear. By Friday, we teachers asked the parents to accompany their children to school so they could pick up their things; we all had two days to move around and cross city borders. Military and police checkpoints were all over. We were no longer allowed to take the school bus and transport the children; everyone had to go on their own. 

In a matter of hours, students and teachers had to bid farewell to our lovely but now eerily quiet school, with no one else around except for maybe a student or two and their parents and a few teachers who happened to arrive at the same time. None of the events that were supposed to happen could push through, no goodbye handshake to everyone, and most heart-wrenching of all, no Class 12 Play and no Class 12 Graduation ceremony to send our seniors off to their journey after ten or so years of their life in Waldorf.

The faculty came up with a quick decision: Class 8 and the Upper School will go online to finish their remaining main lessons; the younger ones were sent some stories to read, Math worksheets to answer, crafts to finish, activities the little ones could do with their parents at home. Class 8 students made a video of themselves presenting their I-Do projects, with their respective families as instant production crew! The videos were uploaded by their teacher on a Google drive for the students, parents, and teachers to see. 

Online Classes

Meanwhile, the upper school had ended their blocks prior to the lockdown and began with the last main lesson blocks for the year using platforms like Zoom, Google Classroom and Facebook Messenger. Life Science for Class 9, Poetics for Class 10, and Projective Geometry for Class 11. At this point, our high schoolers proved themselves true to their name “Kawayan”, the Tagalog word for bamboo, and adjusted to the new situation with grace, flexibility, and resilience. After all, a huge part of their daily lives is spent online and the only new thing for them would be having their “boomer” Waldorf teachers online with them. Imagine that! They were pretty excited too: they didn’t have to wake up at 5am; no need to force themselves to take a shower; no need to chase after the school bus or the morning bell. They could even use their phones in class! It was going to be paradise for these teens. 

Kidding aside, our students rose above the situation and tried to do their part in making this new learning setup possible for everyone, especially for us teachers. Surely, there were funny mishaps which are now familiar to everyone, ranging from teachers not knowing how to unmute their mics, parents yelling that lunch was ready for the whole world to hear, mothers bringing in the laundry to be seen by the whole class, to people “freezing” in their screens. Our high school teachers rose to the occasion too. The human anatomy intricately drawn and colored on poster papers, screens being expertly shared, notes on Zoom whiteboard, tutorial videos for Projective Geometry —some Waldorf teachers were born to have Youtube channels, if you ask me.

All these signaled a “new normal” that we were all learning to live with. These were the tangible, doable changes that we and many other schools all over the world had to face and are facing still. Waldorf education naturally enables us to adapt to change, but at the same time, my students and I were privileged to have the basic resources to transition to an online platform as well as the parent support that we teachers needed at the time. What if we didn’t? 

A Feeling of Connectedness 

With remote learning, delivering the curriculum was important, yes. But to me, the coldness and intrinsic materialism of the medium could potentially intensify the burgeoning feeling of isolation that some students might already be having. For some of them, the sudden change was quite a shock. Physical distancing was already literally and figuratively setting us apart. There was also the growing fear and anxiety about the pandemic that the students were beginning to express. Thus, right from the start, my main goal in our online classes was to ensure that every student in the group would feel a sense of connectedness with each other.

Think of sixteen-year-old adolescents forced to stay home for weeks. These are young individuals for whom vitality and action are a must, while monotony and tedium are a nightmare. Because of this, I had to imagine new ways of teaching that would enliven and engage the students even more than if I was teaching in a regular classroom. But how? Fortunately, the main lesson I had to teach was Poetry, a subject that is so rich with possibilities for creativity and engagement with the soul, the Other, and the world around us. 

With the standard course content in mind and pedagogical aims of the class, I also had to consider the following:

  • With nothing else but main lesson to fill their days and with most of the students not having the opportunity to be outdoors even to take a walk on the street, they will most likely be online the whole dayWhat assignments and tasks could I give them that could provide a healthy balance of working online and going offscreen? 
  • How could the students achieve a semblance of working with each other on a one to one, or more personal way where they would have to truly connect and relate to each other?
  • How could learning differences be met and individual capacities recognized?
  • What could we do to allow the transformative power of poetry to work on our life forces, give shape to our feeling life, and strengthen our spirits, given the unusual situation of being sheltered in place?
  • Considering the platform and students’ home situations or limitations, what main lesson activities could we do to awaken to what was going on around us without falling into despair and negativity, as well as expressing ourselves through poetry without further going into self-absorption? 
  • How could we bring out beauty, truth, goodness, and meaning out of these unprecedented time in human history? Is this even the aim? 
  • In the midst of all this, what is truly essential?

What did we do

Did I find answers to my questions? The truth is I do not know yet. Every day, I carried those questions and realized that those are actual questions that I would ask even on a normal class situation for that is what Waldorf is all about in the first place. What is different this time then? I suppose that there is now a growing sense of grappling with this new, unseen but palpable reality that I cannot yet describe. We did do a lot of activities that allowed the class to work collaboratively. They made drawings, took photographs around the house; listened to music and wrote poems based on the song; watched poems set to film, listened to poets read their works on videos; listened to each other’s poems; “traveled” to distant lands; researched poet biographies; wrote on their journals, and many others. On our last day, we had a Poetry Café where each student shared a selected piece that they wrote during the block. Two boys played the guitar; a couple of them wore what they would have worn for Prom, while everyone else tried to make this last day of class a little bit special. 

Carrying on

This experience of learning together online surely created something different in the class and in myself as a teacher. This is a bunch of boisterous and exuberant 10th-graders, but every day, I had sensed a certain pensive and serious attitude in them. The topics that they wrote about became serious and deep as well. One morning, we discussed the poetry of e.e.cummings and the importance of individuality. We talked about being nobody but oneself, and somehow, the class started talking about how challenging it is to be true to oneself, especially in these days where one feels most isolated and disconnected from the world, but how in trying to connect to one’s Self, one would also find their way to connect to others, and how this is what the world needs most now. I do not know how we were led to that conversation, but I do remember ending that session feeling a sense of gratitude and hope, and even, of joy.  

Having online classes was not easy at all; not a mere case of “translating” lessons into an online setup. Every day, preparation was key. I also had to check myself for my own anxieties and find my center in the midst of all this. I realized that today more than ever, we Waldorf teachers are being called to open doors that will lead us toward changing the world in the next one hundred years. This is the threshold that we are crossing as the future comes towards us. In our days of being physically distanced from each other, the sense of connectedness was a thin thread that one would have to be finely and lovingly attentive to in order to grasp and experience it. We were fortunate to have poetry do this for us. We were fortunate to have each other, to learn together and carry on, despite the distance. 

By now we all know that nothing will ever be the same again, and perhaps that’s how it ought to be. In one of Rudolf Steiner’s lectures to young people in Stuttgart in 1924, he said to them, “…a positive light is shining into the souls of the young. It expresses itself in the striving for community among young people…People are looking for something…Man has lost man, and is seeking him again...Human beings, in community life, must mean something to one another…Modern youth, when it understands itself, is demanding to be awakened in its consciousness [and that] can only happen through the Spirit, can only happen if the Spirit actually sends its sparks into the communities people today. The Spirit must be the Awakener…This is indeed the deepest quest…” 

The task before us is indeed a quest and we must carry on with hearts full of hope and courage that will spark the Spirit. To end, I’d like to share this poem written by a 10th-grade girl during our online poetry class. Just like this young writer, may we have more mornings of grace and inspiration to teach and face the changes ahead of us. 

A Poem After Sarah Kay’s “Grace” 

I woke up this morning and said thank you.

To the blanket that kept me warm all night

To the clutter of books on my bedside,

keeping me company even when I’m asleep

For mornings with my fellow social-distanced poets

And our two-hour long poetry sessions together

For their yawns, grogginess, and tired eyes

That somehow turn into sparks of creativity

To my worn-out sneakers that used to be white

Whose soles carry the weight of my thoughts

For their patience while waiting in line

And their ability to hold it together

To the stack of receipts I forgot to throw away

That shape shift into bookmarks

To the music that travels from my phone,

To my ears, all the way to my heart

I woke up this morning and said thank you,

And politely asked for more mornings.