Chef James Wiggins of Roosevelt Senior High School in northwest D.C. (Courtesy photo)
Chef James Wiggins of Roosevelt Senior High School in northwest D.C. (Courtesy photo)

Teachers across the U.S. continue to spend this year’s Teacher Appreciation Week, not in the classroom as has been the norm but in their homes seated at their computers — virtually engaging hundreds of thousands of sequestered students — collectively unable to escape the maelstrom caused by an unprecedented health pandemic.

At a time when teachers have rightly garnered recognition for the copious amounts of behind-the-scenes planning and classroom management many have mustered to form an ideal academic environment, some instructors say deem it fitting to both commend and support those parents successfully navigating home necessities as well as guiding their child’s learning.

“There’s so much going on [so] to all of a sudden ask to be appreciated is ridiculous. This situation is so strenuous,” said Remy Mallett, a third-year first grade teacher at Hendley Elementary School in Southeast — one of three D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) instructors featured in this report because of their ingeniously crafted online lessons.

Throughout DCPS’ distance-learning program, Mallett has used Twitter and YouTube to show her students how to count and recognize syllable sounds. She’s also utilized social media as a way to engage parents unsure of how to help their young ones grasp important concepts.

For Mallett, these efforts align with her attempts and those of her colleagues to derail long-entrenched systemic inequity which the coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated.

“I don’t plan on or anticipate being appreciated,” she said. “The way I feel appreciated is that trust and the relationship [where students and parents] can voice their concerns and tell me what they need from me.”

As many parents find themselves reeling from the sudden shutdown of their jobs, DCPS officials have coordinated the packaging of nearly a quarter-million meals, maintaining 10 free food sites throughout the District. The central office has also provided care packages for pre-kindergarten families that include books, art activities and cleaning supplies. Partnerships with philanthropic partners have supported the distribution of laptops, Wi-Fi access and other technology essential for distance learning.

And teachers have become increasingly creative about how to present material to a student population dealing with these changes.

Through his online “Quarantine Kitchen” lessons, Chef James Wiggins demonstrates the need for mathematics and science to his students as he guides them in combining ingredients commonly found in the kitchen to make biscuits, pancakes, apple butter cookies and other treats.

Wiggins, a teacher at Roosevelt Senior High School in Northwest since October, said “Quarantine Kitchen” allows students to express their creativity in their cooking videos and embrace recipes that encourage a balanced diet.

“Because of what I do with the culinary arts, it will now be in the forefront of the core competencies,” Wiggins said in reference to the eventual launch of Roosevelt’s culinary arts NAF academy.

“This is paving the way for the math teacher [and] young people are seeing the need for health, wealth and nutrition,” he added. “More people are tuning in to ‘Quarantine Kitchen.’ We send out the ingredients the week before and when I show up on Wednesday we go at it. I’m excited about where this is going.”

Virtual learning has been scheduled to continue to the end of the academic year (May 29) but D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) has still not announced how things will proceed this summer or in the fall.

But some teachers, including Carmen Garner, say they’re remaining focused on the present, ensuring that schools can meet their students’ social-emotional needs, despite the unique circumstances.

“Our administration has done a great job of building that bridge between the class and virtual world. Our mentoring program connects with kids once a day and we’re doing lessons in front of the screen,” said Garner, an art teacher in his fourth year at Shepherd Elementary School in Northwest who serves as a social-emotional faculty leader.

In his YouTube lessons, a costumed and animated Garner salutes his students for their artistry and parents for their support. He, with the help of an English teacher, later outlines an art project that incorporates language arts, math and other disciplines.

In one video, he showed students how to create a story where the main character, an animal, solves a problem. That premise bears a similarity to what Garner and other teachers have faced in recent weeks.

“The only difficult thing is resources, like getting books and finding materials but our [leadership] has told us not to stress and get overwhelmed during these times,” said Garner, a D.C. resident of two decades hailing from Springfield, Massachusetts.

“They put us at ease and let us know there’s not too much they wouldn’t make available for us,” he said.

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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