Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020, all eyes have been on students, as reports from across the country have outlined a decline in the emotional well-being of school-aged children.
“It’s harder [students] Make new friends now,” says Chris Watkins, who teaches high school English in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “They’ve not practiced actual socializing, and they seem to be struggling, or unwilling. “
For educators like Karen Harris (Wheelock ’92), it doesn’t take a pandemic to understand that students need more institutional support for their inner lives—here’s what she taught as Brookline High School English Teacher’s Mission School Program.Her class “Friendship and Literature” by looking at things such as the great gatsby and Tony Morrison’s Sula. She said the program is designed to give students the tools to unlock their own emotional language.
“We had an entire conversation about the boys crying and how they felt they were not allowed to cry except during these very special ‘brother’ moments,” Harris said. “We were able to open it up and see why that was happening. “
The program’s growing popularity among students shows that Harris is doing something. After leaving her teaching position to write full-time in 2019 and witnessing the devastation of the pandemic on her own high school-aged children, she felt an urgent need to pass on what she had developed with her colleagues at BU and Brookline High School.
In 2020, Harris received $168,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities to host a summer institute at BU, which she named “Friendship and Identity in Literature, Film, and Adolescence.” Harris worked with Wheelock Associate Professor Emeritus Stephan Ellenwood, who, in her words, “mentor-slash-pseudo-daddy” co-directed the program.
“As I fleshed out all of my narratives and reasons for applying, I became more and more convinced of the class,” Harris said.
On July 10, 25 high school English teachers, including Watkins, Tennessee, arrived at Boston University for a two-week academy. Participants live on campus during the program and include a wide range of English teachers—from first-grade educators to 25-year veterans of public, private, and charter schools across the country.
“You really couldn’t ask for a more diverse group,” said program participant Alexandra Patterson from Mercersburg, Pennsylvania.
Courses range from Sula To Aristotle, and access to a roster of lecturers such as Niobe Way (author deep secret) and Lashon Daley (authors black girl lit), according to Allen Wood, the program is a testament to Harris’ ingenuity.
“Karen’s teaching strategies are based on stories that provide students with the vocabulary to build and maintain important relationships and friendships,” he said. “She identified a major problem with teens.”
The teachers present quickly learned that the purpose of the program is not just to impact students – they benefit from it too. For some, this is the first time since before the pandemic that they have had any meaningful professional development, or the ability to discuss texts and share skills in person.
“So much professional development happens online, and it’s more lecture-based,” Patterson said. “It’s more like ‘here are some resources’ and less collaboration and dialogue. Here we take ideas from each other and collaboration, and that’s what we value now.”
For others, getting out of the role of educator and becoming a student again is healing. “Things like this [institute] “We’re really strong because we can be students for a couple of weeks,” said Lindsey Thompson of Kansas City, Missouri. “We can get the same experience that we want our students to have.”
On July 13, Robert Pinsky, former American Poet Laureate, William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor, and English Professor at the College of Arts and Sciences, visited us. When teaching emotional literacy to students, his message is simple: “You don’t start with what it means — you start with how it feels.”
He recounted an anecdote about his grandson, with whom he shared a Wallace Stevens poem when the young man was in quarantine for COVID. Pinsky notes that his grandson initially struggled to understand the poem, “The Pleasure of Mere Loops,” but the power of patience, encouragement, and the connection between them, he said, “made him Wallace Stevens. fans”.
Harris said the academy was created so that visiting speakers like Pinsky could provide a theoretical framework for “friendship studies,” and her role was to help guide the curriculum model into practice.
“I’m not a friendship expert per se — that’s why I brought these scholars in,” she said. “But I know how to design a curriculum. I give [attendees] “
Early in the program, attendees gather into small teams with the aim of designing lessons around friendship and literature. On the last day of the project, the team presented them to their peers. Everyone shared lesson goals and suggested readings, and group activities were facilitated, again allowing participating teachers to see things through the eyes of their students.
In each group activity presentation, teachers turn to each other and reveal how many times they’ve dealt with broken friendships; they’ve developed golden rules for imaginary communities; they’ve shared some life advice; they’ve revealed a piece of literature that changed them.
According to Harris, these conversations were the most important during their brief time together:
“You can’t get away from it, especially in the humanities: you’re leading the class,” she said. “I don’t want teachers to forget that they are part of the curriculum.”
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