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Here’s what the COVID-19 pandemic taught Utah’s teacher of the year

Anyone expecting typical outcomes has “lost touch with the fact that these kids have survived the worst educational crisis we’ve seen in the century,” John Arthur believes.

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) Sixth grade teacher John Arthur helps Marly Mendoza, 12, complete a s’more during an end-of-the-year field trip for Meadowlark Elementary School students in Big Cottonwood Canyon on Friday, June 4, 2021.

In early September, Captain John Arthur and his crew of Meadowlark Elementary sixth graders had barely embarked on their voyage through the pandemic toward some semblance of an education. But already, communication channels were down and a few students were MIA.

“Gucci Banana. Gucci Banana, can you hear me?” Arthur said while staring intently into his computer monitor. He threw up his hands, “Argh, these audio problems.”

Arthur, better known as “Captain” to his students, lets them pick what they want to be called in class, which was held entirely online in the Salt Lake City School District until late January. So, the squares in the Zoom call were labeled with names like “Kermet” and “ChunkyBoi” and “Panda.” Gucci Banana is 11-year-old Amy Gomez. The internet flickered in and out at her house, and Arthur’s lesson came across garbled. He told her to come to the school, where he’d set her up in a separate room with consistent Wi-Fi.

That’s how it started. This is how it’s going.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Meadowlark Elementary School teacher John Arthur interacting with his students on Zoom, in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. Arthur is working through the kinks of teaching his 6th grade kids, many of which don't have internet access, online. He was named the Utah Teacher of the Year.

Arthur — and anyone else in the vicinity — had no trouble hearing his students last Friday morning. Their shouts and laughter echoed off the rocks surrounding the Storm Mountain Amphitheater a few miles up Big Cottonwood Canyon. Instead of huddling over a laptop in a dark corner of his classroom, he was crouched by a fire pit, giving what was likely his last lesson of the school year — how to roast marshmallows for s’mores.

The captain and crew undoubtedly went off course this school year, navigating through online learning, a return to in-person school with the coronavirus still threatening, and the constant disruptions of students coming and going. But even if they didn’t reach their intended destination — the typical well-rounded education and high test scores — they made land. Or at least the end of the school year.

“Given where the year started and was all the way up through the reopening in January and beyond, I think that where we ended up has exceeded my expectations,” Arthur said. “And the only thing that sours that, that takes it from being the ultimate triumphant ending, is the fact that so many people are trying to apply the kind of thinking that we would do in a normal year in terms of looking at end-of-year testing data, for example, and applying that same thinking to the kids.

“It’s almost like they’ve forgotten that we spent so much of our year just surviving and trying to make the most out of remote learning and in-person learning. And they’ve lost touch with the fact that these kids have survived the worst educational crisis we’ve seen in the century.”

Educators should take time to celebrate the tenacity of the kids who made it through the school year, Arthur said. Then they may want to reset their own compasses.

Just focused on getting by

First came the egg.

Well, technically first came the lesson on ratios. Then came the eggs — 10 raw, eight boiled — that an administrator cracked, one by one, over the heads of the three sixth-grade teachers at Meadowlark, in a popular first-week-of-school tradition. The teacher with the least egg on his or her face wins bragging rights for the year.

The 2020 event took place in an upstairs hallway at Meadowlark, a Title I school just east of the Salt Lake City International Airport, outside Arthur’s classroom. In a typical year, the long hallway would be crammed with students three- to four-deep, standing on their tip-toes to catch sight of a broken yellow yoke slinking its way down a teacher’s face.

The reverberations of their voices off the walls would be so loud that the ever-changing ratios of boiled eggs to raw ones would have to be communicated on a whiteboard.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Meadowlark Elementary School teacher John Arthur interacting with his students on Zoom, in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. Arthur is working through the kinks of teaching his 6th grade kids, many of which don't have internet access, online. He was named the Utah Teacher of the Year.

This year, the whiteboard reflected ratios back to kids quietly watching via Zoom from their home computers. The only thing that reverberated off the walls were the echoes of a squeal when a teacher felt the raw egg ooze out of its shell.

“Normally this is hilarious and loud,” Arthur said. “This will be hilarious and less loud.”

Egg Roulette is one among the sea of activities kids missed sharing in person this year. Arthur, who in October was named Utah’s Teacher of the Year, had a few years earlier started a tradition of taking his students to chess tournaments and debate contests. It was his way of exposing his class, mostly students of color, to worlds they otherwise might never have experienced.

Usually, kids can’t wait to ply their skills in debate, he said. But not this year.

Though the contest took place in May and Meadowlark could have participated, Arthur pulled the plug. He got the feeling from his students that the last thing they wanted this year was more conflict.

“I just didn’t have enough of them who felt comfortable, like, debating, in person,” he said. “They were still too stuck in that isolated, on-camera thing. They just didn’t have the juice or the desire really ... because they were just too focused on getting through and getting by.”

Even after the district allowed students to return to classrooms in late January, he said, they barely interacted with one another for weeks. Then one day the cloud burst and the chaos that 21 cooped-up 11- and 12-year-olds can create took over.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Meadowlark Elementary School teacher John Arthur interacting with his students on Zoom, in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. Arthur is working through the kinks of teaching his 6th grade kids, many of which don't have internet access, online. He was named the Utah Teacher of the Year.

That commotion was welcomed by 11-year-old Ikram Mohamed. Better known to her classmates as “Dimples,” she had struggled to hear Arthur through her headphones while learning from home with her five brothers and sisters.

“I get to do my work faster and it’s easier because I get some peace,” she said. “Because my siblings are so loud and anytime they’re watching TV, I can’t hear anything.”

Nevertheless, said Daisy Gomez, aka “Kermet,” being in the classroom felt weird. “With all the masks and social distancing,” she said, “it wasn’t the same as it was before.”

It still isn’t.

Changing tack

If it weren’t for the masks hanging off noses and around chins, the scene at the amphitheater Friday would have looked almost pre-pandemic normal. Kids bumped a volleyball around and tossed a football. They sat side-by-side eating lunch and huddled together around the campfire.

Handing out graham crackers and chocolate bars, Arthur took a moment away from his duties and reflected on the ruckus around him.

“That’s why this is so great,” he said. “We were all alone in a hallway [during Egg Roulette], and now we’re all together here. Don’t get me wrong, they’re a little crazy, but I’ll take it.”

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) Dahynna Langi, 12, listens to directions as she climbs her way up a rock face while being belayed by a school counselor during an end-of-the-year field trip for Meadowlark Elementary School students held at the Storm Mountain Picnic Area in Big Cottonwood Canyon east of Cottonwood Heights on Friday, June 4, 2021.

Most of the kids in Arthur’s class, including Dimples, had never made s’mores before. Some of the sixth graders had never been into the mountains, despite living less than 30 miles away from them.

But during that rare field trip on the second-to-last day of school, the students tested their bravery by strapping into a climbing harness and crawling up a vertical crag while an adult belayer held their safety rope. They tested their sense of direction by returning safely to camp after a meandering hike. And they tested their trust in others as they knelt — a thoughtfully chosen marshmallow-roasting stick in hand — next to their captain near the fire when he promised them they wouldn’t get burned.

It may take years for students to catch up to where the standardized tests suggest they should be in their academic progress. That lag will likely be even longer at schools like Meadowlark, which draws from a lower-income community that consists of many essential workers who couldn’t stay home to supervise their kids’ education.

But Arthur — whose motto for his class is “We Climb. We Rise. We help.” — says if any lesson can be extracted from the trials of the past year, maybe it’s that tests of character and resiliency, and not just academia, should have a place in schools as well. Maybe it’s time to chart a new course.

“It’s not [normal],” Arthur, who didn’t have a single student drop out this year, said of post-pandemic school. “But it points to what school should be and never really was anyway.

“And hopefully it helps show us what school could be.”

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) Sixth-grade teacher John Arthur bumps a volleyball as he and students play at the amphitheater during an end-of-the-year field trip for Meadowlark Elementary School students held at the Storm Mountain Picnic Area in Big Cottonwood Canyon east of Cottonwood Heights on Friday, June 4, 2021.

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