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May 8, 2020 | Abby Liu
Photo: Sixth grade student Giulio with his self-portrait during the Memoir Night Zoom gathering
Every year at Mustard Seed, sixth grade students embark on focused writing lessons over the course of the year that lead up to a master project in the spring: the Memoir Project. Memoir writing gives students an opportunity to reflect upon their lives. Express themselves. And engage with topics about which they feel passionately. It’s a vulnerable process that requires a strong classroom community in which students feel safe.
Students began memoir work at the end of February. They started with writing prompts and moved into brainstorming themes. Then, just as students shifted into writing longer drafts of vignettes, COVID-19 forced most of the world into social distancing. In a matter of days, Mustard Seed School transitioned to a distance learning experience.
What was that like for students? For sixth grader Giulio, the change to distance learning was hard at first. He spent a lot of time figuring out the new landscape. Meanwhile, his teachers experimented with systems and technology as they searched for the most effective methods of teaching. Together, they were “building the bicycle while riding it.” Teachers sometimes assigned too much work. Sometimes not enough. For Guilio, it was initially difficult to plan out all of the work that needed to be completed during the week. But as time went on, he adjusted. His teachers and classmates did, too. Distance learning evolved into a balance of synchronous and asynchronous experiences.
Before COVID-19, Guilio was used to working with his partner in class. In the same room. He enjoyed the collaboration. Within the distance learning environment, partner work often took place via comments in a Google doc or over email. There was a lag time between when Giulio and his partner were able to respond to each other. The work just took longer. And even though Guilio usually enjoys writing, he found the virtual environment made the process much less pleasurable. He really missed being at school with his friends. (He didn’t think it possible that he would miss school, but he does!)
Still, Guilio and his classmates are resilient. They worked through the rest of the memoir writing process. The drafting. Storyboarding. Revision. Editing. And the creation of an artifact, a self-portrait, to accompany the writing. Their work was extraordinary, especially given that most of it was produced in the completely new, virtual learning environment. And in the middle of a global pandemic.
Memoir Night is the culminating event of the memoir writing project. It’s a time when students, teachers, and parents gather. Students read excerpts of their writing and unveil their self-portraits. It’s a celebration of the hard work of the sixth grade, but also a time for students to be seen and known. This year, instead of gathering at school, students and parents broke into small groups online over a Zoom meeting. Students still read excerpts from their memoirs and shared their self-portraits. They surprised each other with their honesty and depth. Even in the virtual environment, their time together was meaningful.
In the end, many students reported that they felt proud of their work. And they should! They successfully engaged in a long-term, personal narrative project. That, in and of itself, is significant. The fact that they also navigated a vulnerable writing process during this great experiment in distance learning is a huge accomplishment. One that they will not soon forget!
Guilio shared with us some excerpts from his memoir. Here’s an inside look at the new reality from the perspective of a student.
Up until March 16, 2020, I would wake up each morning and go to the couch. There I would sit with my father, watch hockey highlights, perhaps do a few moments of Xbox and get dressed and ready for school. Then, my father would walk me to school and after a full day, I might grab a snack or go to the park before returning home to do homework, eat dinner, take a shower, and hopefully have a few minutes to watch YouTube videos before going to bed. That was my daily weekday routine. Weekends were filled with relaxing, hockey, and sometimes schoolwork. Life was predictable and tedious. Then, everything changed. On Friday, the 13th my classmates and I were informed that we would not be going to school for at least a few weeks due to the spread of the Coronavirus.
For the past few days, my life has been full of schoolwork in front of the computer, and face timing with my friends instead of hanging out in person. I wonder how long this will be going on. I wonder when we will get back to school. I wonder if someone I know will become sick with COVID-19. And most of all, I wonder if the spread of the virus will get worse. I would rather be in school and learning with my friends instead of by myself. My daily routine has changed quite a bit, and I will probably have to get used to this way of life and stay optimistic. Roy T. Bennett wrote, “Keep going. Your hardest times often lead to the greatest moments of your life. Keep going. Tough situations build strong people in the end.”
Life During the Coronavirus
In March of 2020, the coronavirus hit our area. For several weeks prior, we had heard about it, but never expected it to come to Hoboken. On Friday the 13th it was announced that our school would be closed indefinitely, until at least after spring break. We would have to practice social distancing and learn through screens. At first I thought, “Oh no this is bad.” The biggest disappointment has been not seeing my friends and teachers. My spring hockey league and a big hockey tournament were also canceled, but that was the least of my worries. My biggest worry is that someone I know will get sick.
My family and I take long walks everyday, just to get outside and breathe in some fresh air. We always make sure to keep our distance from others and wash our hands thoroughly when we return home. On those walks, I have noticed that most if not every store is closed. I miss hanging out with my friends in person. I have been FaceTiming with friends and that helps. I feel lucky enough to have advanced technology during this time. I wonder what we would have done if we didn’t have computers, FaceTime, or any technology to connect with others.
Realizing that many others have it much worse than us, we have tried to do a few things to help our community. We have ordered take out and bought gift cards from some of our favorite restaurants to help them stay open during these hard times. We also brought cans of soup and made sandwiches for a local lunchtime ministry. My friends and I are wondering what else we can do to help others. Although it’s hard to stay optimistic, I do feel lucky for what I have and hopefully by the time I am sharing this, this pandemic will be over and everything will be back to normal.
During the times we live in now, it is very hard to stay optimistic with the Coronavirus, social distancing, and other world problems, such as our uncertain economy. I think I have done a good job with this theme of optimism throughout my life, but I do not know if the current situation we are in will get better. I believe that it will. Being optimistic will hopefully help me through the rest of my life’s ups and downs, just as it has helped me in the past and in the present. As Roy T. Bennett has said, “Be mindful. Be grateful. Be positive. Be true. Be kind,” and most importantly be optimistic.