“Everyone’s Rectangle is the Same Size”: How Remote Learning Shaped How We Teach

by | Apr 6, 2022

This year we have all been sicker and more tired than ever before. We are trying to push through and we aim to work with students and not merely teach AT them. They are the reason we are there, they are the integral part of our community, our family, and the school belongs to them. There’s a magic to the school and so we welcome you inside our now digital classroom, and hope that what we’ve learned, from both our successes and our struggles, can help inspire you too.
― Excerpt from South Bronx Adventures: Teaching During a Pandemic

The story is similar for teachers across the country. Reports of a novel coronavirus finds its way into niche medical news. Soon, it becomes an above-the-fold headline. And next thing you know, you’re being told school will be remote for two weeks. Just two weeks. That’s all. It’s new. But it’s manageable.

“New York City doesn’t close. We don’t get snow days.” Danielle Bassie, a high school teacher in the Bronx, describes her experience shifting into pandemic teaching. “It was obscene that they were telling us two weeks. So, at first it was a stop-gap … how do we get through two weeks?”

Yancy Sanes, a teacher at the same school, adds, “I think we had like two days with other teachers to come into the building and just plan for those two weeks. And a lot of us were just stunned, like how are we gonna teach kids online?”

Of course, what was meant to be two weeks turned into months and the Zoom classroom became, for a period, the rule rather than the exception.

Danielle and Yancy’s experience mirrors that of many teachers, yet also is extremely unique. Teachers at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the Bronx, they are co-teachers who have found both strength in each other as well as a new pedagogical path forward. They used their experience to develop a new normal when it comes to how they approach their classrooms today, whether it be in-person or remote. They documented the experience in their book South Bronx Adventures: Teaching During a Pandemic and also sat down with me to reflect on the experience, their new outlook on teaching, and the importance of co-teachers a year later.

Yancy and Danielle weren’t always co-teachers. Prior to them sharing a classroom, prior to them even knowing each other, and long before the pandemic, Danielle taught with a different teacher. “I had an ICT (Integrated Co-Teaching) class with a different teacher for two or three years, it wasn’t a great fit, and then also the students started to be, in addition to IEP (Individualized Education Program), English Language Learners. I do not speak Spanish which is the primary language our students speak. Right around that time Yancy got his teaching license, that was the hole that we needed to fill, and so that’s how we were assigned to each other.”

In many ways, this trial-and-error format for finding a perfect fit represents Danielle’s experience throughout her professional life, and she wants other teachers to know it’s okay to need to try multiple times to get things right, whether that’s in finding a co-teacher, finding the right school, or even finding a career.

Speaking about how she became a teacher, she recalls, “My mom is a high school math teacher and told me I should be the same, but I was convinced I knew better. So after college, I was an environmental activist for quite some time and it didn’t work out. I got sort of disillusioned with that world. I did the New York City Teaching Fellows to fill that time while I figured out what I really wanted to do in life, but once I started teaching I was like ‘Oh, well, once again my mom was right, this… this is what I was supposed to do.’” Her experience finding her ideal school at Fannie Lou wasn’t so straightforward either.

“I was at two other schools before Fannie Lou. They were not good fits. The schools I was at before were Regents schools and so when I came to Fannie Lou and it was both the Algebra Project and also teaching science, it was a big shift.”

Yancy is different, however. He was a student at Fannie Lou before becoming a teacher there. “This is my fourth year teaching. I haven’t left Fannie Lou. I was a student here. I graduated here in 2014. So I basically just never left the building.” Coincidentally, Danielle and Yancy entered that building the same year, 2010, with Yancy a freshman just entering high school and Danielle on her 3rd year as a teacher, although she never had him as a student.

Just like Yancy stayed with the school he was familiar with, he was happy with his first assignment for a co-teacher as well. After Danielle put in a request to find a new co-teacher, she was assigned Yancy. “The needs started growing for the population, there were more students that were English Language Learners and also had IEPs,” Yancy reflects, “I do speak Spanish, so because I had the Special Education license and I guess because I speak Spanish, I was placed with Danielle.” The assignment worked out, and the pair have shared Room 103 ever since.

Co-teachers help make a class better. It’s two minds at work and so you can push each other to make lessons, environment, management better as well as fill in gaps in styles and pedagogies. We’re lucky in that our minds work well together despite our different backgrounds. This doesn’t mean we are always in sync or agree. We both are headstrong and very stubborn but it works for us. The fact that we are so different, but passionate, serves our kids well and has pushed us to be better versions of ourselves. We both are constantly aiming for the best for our students. We demand excellence from ourselves and each other and we both get frustrated when things flop.
― Excerpt from South Bronx Adventures: Teaching During a Pandemic

Danielle’s propensity for trial-and-error versus Yancy’s if-it-ain’t-broke approach to life marks just one of the many differences between the pair. Both headstrong and passionate individuals from different generations and with different backgrounds, the two have found that their differences have, in many ways, aided their teaching ability.

That relationship became more important than they could’ve realized when the pandemic forced all schooling to become remote.

“How do we take this classroom, which we have put so much love and care into creating this culture and community, and make it virtual?” Danielle asked herself during that two day preparation allotment. The pair saw the same struggles so many teachers went through. Kids weren’t used to the online learning environment, and standards quickly dropped. Students wouldn’t put on their cameras, or show up on time, or speak when called on. It seemed the culture and community Yancy and Danielle had fostered for so long was quickly becoming lost.

At first, they decided to take the standards they applied to the in-person classroom and apply them to the Zoom classroom. This meant keeping your camera on, being punctual, and being an active participant in class. They received push back not only from students and their parents, but also from colleagues, arguing that now was not the time to be demanding a high standard of excellence. Despite this, they stuck with their plan.

What Yancy and Danielle would soon come to find out was, there wasn’t just merit in pulling from in-person teaching experience and adapting it to Zoom, but that the lessons they learned from a Zoom classroom had a real place in the in-person classroom as well.

“There’s been a tremendously big change, it’s a new normal,” Yancy says of returning to in-person teaching. Teaching over Zoom forced both teachers to reevaluate their entire relationship to teaching in a way that has stuck with them ever since. He continues, “Before, when we first started co-teaching together, we were just like ‘this is what we’re gonna teach’, then the pandemic came and we started asking ourselves ‘what are the best strategies to reach all of our students, were we actually reaching all our students prior to the pandemic?’, and now it’s like ‘are we reaching everyone’s needs, how is what we are teaching relevant, is it important, why does it matter?’” The takeaway wasn’t just in approach, but also in how they structure their lessons, “teaching in different mediums (is another big shift). We could be in the classroom lecturing, we can have students taking the lead, or a big thing that’s shifted is that the classroom can be anywhere, it can be on Zoom, it can be in a classroom, or it can be outside.”

Students show up, and then give their full potential, far more often when they trust their teacher. It’s essential to build individual and authentic relationships with your students. This will lead to them feeling comfortable in the classroom (or on Zoom), which allows them to experiment with their learning, show vulnerability, and ultimately succeed.
― Excerpt from South Bronx Adventures: Teaching During a Pandemic

Danielle agrees, adding, “The pandemic teaching experience was awful, and I learned a lot and it reset me as a teacher. I was teaching ten years before the pandemic hit so at that point I thought ‘oh I got it figured out’, and then suddenly – you have to reset. When you’re on Zoom, everyone’s rectangles are the same size, but when you’re in the classroom kids take up different amounts of space, and so it can be really easy to ignore the quiet kid or to meet the needs of the loudest student. And kids fall between the cracks.”

With in-person teaching resumed, Yancy and Danielle have a renewed sense of importance in reaching every kid and preventing any from falling behind. And the strategies they employed during Zoom lessons have been paramount in reaching them in the classroom.

There’s still a lot of work to do, however, before classrooms can fully meet the needs of students. When asked what changes they’d still like to see, Yancy is quick to respond, “Equity. The South Bronx is the poorest congressional district in the country. I don’t think wealth is being distributed evenly. And you can see that in schools and kid’s education. Also, the Bronx is heavily segregated and that’s due to it being the poorest congressional district. So I’m all about equity and I think that’s the biggest thing that needs to change in schools right now all across the country.”

Danielle also emphasizes the need for equity, but tacks on, “Is it too on the nose to say everyone should be teaching the Algebra Project?”

You can read more about Danielle and Yancy’s experience and advice by purchasing their book, South Bronx Adventures: Teaching During a Pandemic here, or by following them on Instagram @AdventureHouse_ where they regularly post classroom tips for teachers.

Share This

Share this post with your friends!