Highlighting the Experiences of Bronx Science Teachers Through the Lens of Remote Learning and Teaching

Teachers are torchbearers in times of great difficulty, and they too have stories to tell.

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Porfirio Gonzowitz

For teachers around the world, Zoom teaching was an entirely new experience with both positives and negatives compared to in-person teaching pre-pandemic.

The American novelist John Steinbeck once wrote, “Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”

That could not ring more true, especially in light of the Coronavirus pandemic, where the human spirit has been attacked from all corners. In the midst of all of the darkness over the past fifteen months, there is one shining light: the persistence of education, teaching, and learning even through the dystopian-like reality caused by the global Coronavirus pandemic. At Bronx Science, there are over 200 staff members who have had to balance their personal lives and teaching struggles amidst the pandemic.

Throughout the past year, our teachers have remained cheerful, strict, excited, demanding, and encouraging, all in order to nurture their students and keep them on track, insisting that they do not give up. I interviewed four Bronx Science teachers to learn about their own experiences with the current situation and how they have felt about, adjusted, and learned to cope with all of the challenges presented by quarantine, the Coronavirus pandemic, blended learning, and remote learning and teaching.  

I was able to connect with Bronx Science teachers Alexander Thorp (English Department), Kim Brooks (English Department), Porfirio Gonzowitz (Social Studies Department) and Fredric Schorr (Social Studies Department) in order to receive their insight on living and teaching through the pandemic. Each have unique experiences as well as tales that overlap. They coped with loss and celebrated wins. Most of all, they persevered through their personal and work related struggles and showed up daily to teach their students and to serve as shining rays of hope and pillars of strength throughout this entire experience. Teachers all over the world are sure to be able to relate to their stories and to see that they are not alone as they overcome these challenges.

These interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity. 

How did you respond to the initial quarantine of March 2020?

THORP: That was very hard because there was so much fear. The initial quarantine period was really scary because it was this novel pandemic; no one knew anything about it. No one knew exactly how it was transmitted or how you got it or didn’t get it. Everyone was really worried about cleaning surfaces.You’d go to the grocery store and see people wiping down cans. Now we know that you can’t get COVID-19 that way, and that it’s mainly transmitted through aerosols and particles in the air. It was really traumatizing and scary. What I didn’t like was the lack of Zoom teaching in the Spring of 2020. It was all asynchronous work. Because of this, I felt disconnected from my students. It was really hard to connect with them, so that made it really difficult. This year, I do like that we have required Zoom classes. It’s indeed a lot of work for both teachers and students, but worth it in the end. 

SCHORR: Well, we saw the quarantine coming in the last few weeks preceding it. There was the presidential level of denial, and there was a rising chorus from the medical community that big trouble was on its way. I found the medical community in the aggregate was credible, and the highest political authority was not. 

GONZOWITZ: It was weird because when I first heard about the Coronavirus, I was at a wedding in Mid-February 2020. I read about it in The New York Times, it was happening in Washington State. I had a friend from Washington with us, so I obviously asked her about it. She said it was probably something that was just going to come and go. I looked at it as something that would require a little bit of isolation but it probably wouldn’t spread too much.

Then March 2020 comes, I remember I was doing professional development that day, and I was talking to other teachers and listening to the radio. We were discussing the possibility of having to address this issue in schools and we all agreed that it [quarantine] was probably going to happen a lot sooner than we thought. Two days later, the school closed. We all had to come in and do our prep. I call it doomsday prepping because you’re taking your whole curriculum from March to June, and you’re trying to find a way to turn it all over into a remote environment, all in two days.

At that moment, I was a little bit jarred. I’ve been teaching for 16 years, and we always imagined what remote learning would be like, and then it happened. That was when it really hit me, that moment of doing all the prepping, because it was such a sudden change.

How has your response changed or evolved since the beginning of the pandemic to where we are now, fifteen months later? What do you do differently now that we have regular synchronous Zoom and Google Meets classes? Do you feel more comfortable assigning work now that you know that your students are responding more? 

THORP: We’ve gotten into a groove. I run the different classes that I teach differently. Of all of the classes that I teach, Journalism has actually worked the best in this virtual environment, interestingly enough. I suppose it is because the Journalism students have more time for researching and writing their articles, since most of them are not commuting to school this year and have more free time. 

Other classes have been much more challenging. Normally, in Yearbook Graphic Design, students are taking photos around the building of other student activities. They’re working with and talking to each other in person, so that has been the hardest class to reinvent in an all virtual environment. We did get the yearbook done to our usual high standards, but getting photos was more difficult this year.  And since we weren’t all together in one room, it was more difficult to ensure that the entirety of the yearbook was consistent in terms of design. Normally, I can look at a computer screen in a classroom and simply suggest things that need to be fixed. Now it all has to be done from home, so that was challenging. 

With the English classes, I’ve gotten much better throughout the academic year with conducting a Zoom class discussion similar to a Socratic seminar. It’s all interesting because the things that work in the building, in-person, such as lecturing for maybe ten minutes, does not work on Zoom at all. It’s been a constant process of figuring things out and re-imagining things for this virtual world. It also has been a lot of work finding texts to teach that are available as PDFs. With all of the books for my English classes and all of the professional journalistic pieces that we read in the Journalism class, I’ve had to spend hours searching for PDFs online that are free of copyright restrictions and available for use.  

Some of this year’s teaching has been a plus. For example, with the Journalism class, this is the first year that I’ve incorporated the assignment of reading and discussing works by published journalists, past and present. I did that so that my students and I could get to know each other in this virtual setting, with class discussions, and that’s something that I will probably keep in the years to come, even when we’re back in the physical classroom starting this September 2021. I think that journalism students can learn a lot from reading the works of professional journalists. 

That’s something that I appreciate, I chime in. It definitely helped my journalistic writing in terms of being inspired by it, seeing what I can do, and learning what is acceptable and not acceptable, as well as other creative approaches that I could take, so I definitely do appreciate that. Thank you for incorporating these texts, and I hope that it does remain a staple in your teaching process. 

How would you compare and contrast your in person teaching style to this current remote teaching style, and what are some major challenges that remote teaching has presented for you? 

THORP: In person, I am able to walk around the room, interact with students, and engage one-on-one with students, especially with the Journalism and English classes. When you have a class discussion in person, it is magical, because students are engaging in debate back and forth. A Zoom classroom doesn’t have that magic about it. Students have to use the ‘raise hand’ icon, and I have to call on them one at a time. Although you can still have a discussion, it doesn’t quite have the same magic or cachet that you can have in-person. 

Another thing that I found frustrating is that when everyone is in a physical classroom, I can definitely monitor students’ work during class much better. In the virtual world, there are a few students who are either doing other work or simply just not doing what they are supposed to be doing, and I have no way of tracking that from my computer screen. I can only track progress after class to see what work has been done or not done. However, in the physical classroom, I can circulate around the room and constantly engage the students in their classwork. That’s been a big difference; I was much more visible in-person. 

I also miss the small talk with students. For instance, talking to the journalism students about their articles at the end of classes was always a highlight of my day. You can’t do that in a Zoom class that ends at the bell, when the Zoom session is closed.

I definitely understand that, I respond, sharing Mr. Thorp’s sentiments. Especially in discussion heavy classes, I miss having in person discussions and building off of what the last person said and having proper debates. We don’t really have that with Zoom. Everyone already has their response in their head and knows exactly what to say when they are called upon. No one really builds off of what the last person said, although we do manage. I just attribute that to us being Bronx Science students.

THORP: There is something else that I’m constantly thinking about. At Bronx Science, we were able to provide everyone who needed one with loaner laptops and wifi hotspots in order to make remote learning work for everyone. I can only imagine what a struggle it has been for schools around the world that do not have these tech resources. Ten percent of New York City public school students are in the shelter system and I can only imagine how difficult virtual learning has been for them. We’re very lucky at Bronx Science because it has worked so well for us even with the expected limitations of remote learning. I’m just constantly thinking about how amplified the inequities are this year, due to the pandemic.

Yes, that was one of the biggest arguments of coming back in person and having this social distancing procedure with hybrid schooling for students worldwide who depend on school for their meals, to have a safe space, and to escape issues at home. 

BROOKS: I think that one of the biggest challenges around virtual teaching is the way in which I am able to support struggling students, both emotionally and academically. In the past, I would be able to sense a change in a student and recognize that something was going on. I can still do this in the remote environment, but the signs can be more difficult to detect. I can take note of changes in their engagement or work in class, but I am more limited in that sense. Students also might be less likely to share what is going on, as well, because of the technology wall between us.

“I spent time outside and volunteered with animals.” These were two ways that Ms. Brooks found herself coping during the Coronavirus pandemic. (Kim Brooks)

Academically, I can learn a great deal by observing a student in class, or during office hours. I can figure out how they might study best, or techniques that will help with follow through, and try to create a space for that. In remote learning, it is much harder to figure out what a student might need in order to be more productive, and to help them to make it a reality. Many students appreciate having SGI or office hours, where they can work and check in as needed in a supportive environment. It is so much harder to concentrate at home, which is often filled with distractions. 

Another major challenge is making sure that in creating an authentic educational experience, one that will sustain students for years to come. I did not want this year to be full of “busy work” assignments that did not connect to anything. It took much more planning on my part to find some ways in which to make this happen with the constraints of time. 

I think that my teaching is a bit more organic in person. With remote teaching, one of the things that I realized very early on is that I must plan my lessons with extreme care in order for things to run smoothly, as I might not have the benefit of the energy of the ‘room.’ I need to take more time to think about transitions, and how they will happen during class. I do think that this will greatly benefit my in person teaching, and I am grateful that I was forced to reflect and reevaluate the way in which I construct a lesson. 

SCHORR: The hardest challenge about virtual teaching is in trying to create an interactive discussion between students who are miles from each other. It’s definitely doable, but it requires energy, wit, and extra patience. My overall personality seems to be a constant, for better or worse. But I myself did find it necessary to add varying chunks of dramatic lecture at intervals, especially in A.P. class, in order to build a bridge to reach the end of the curriculum. 

GONZOWITZ: The technology was never an issue for me. I find myself to be tech-savvy, I like dealing with electronics, and I play video games, so I’m used to tinkering with computers. I was already utilizing Google Classroom 4 or 5 years ago. My challenges lay in the work that I decided to sign up for after George Floyd’s death, when I decided to take a very active hand in terms of trying to help Bronx Science become an anti-racist body of students and faculty. Doing that work virtually is hard, that was really difficult for me because it was very personal, and doing that from a screen isn’t as impactful as being in front of your peers.

Another thing is that in person, I’m a very active teacher. I move around a lot. To go from that to sitting in front of a screen where I have a few cameras on and a sea of names, it took away the biggest part of teaching for me. Being able to talk with you, being able to see you, being able to see your expressions, your reactions and what you think of something is important.

I primarily taught ninth graders last year, and I have some of them as sophomores this year, so maybe they were ecstatic to have me. ‘If I have to go through this virtual thing, I’m glad I’m doing it with you. I know you so it makes it easier.’ Then I had some students whom I taught last year who were hit hard by living through the Coronavirus pandemic, and they completely changed, and I felt horrible. If we were in-person, it would be a lot easier to stop them and have that moment to talk about what’s going on. But when you’re just sending a direct message to somebody on Zoom, they’re not going to respond to that as effectively.

The challenge was just getting over that block of interpersonal relations because my classes are all forged on rapport. I worked at getting to know my students individually and giving them very big parts of who I am so that we can make this experience something that’s for all of us, not just some of us. Trying to establish that when many students were reluctant was difficult. Many students didn’t want to have their cameras on and many students were depressed with good reason. It was tough. That changes the whole game. The technology aspect did not bother me at all. In fact, many pieces of it are good things that we can take forward.

What are some things you wish were different about the remote learning situation? If you could change anything or improve anything about remote learning and teaching in general, what would it be? 

THORP: Zoom for instance, was made years ago just for business meetings. I think they figured that for teachers, using Zoom would be a temporary thing. So they didn’t build anything like ‘Zoom for teachers.’ If I could, I would ask that Zoom makes a version specific for teachers, and it would have better capabilities. I find the chat feature to be very cumbersome; you can only copy and paste a tiny bit of text into the chat so I have to paste my lengthly class agendas and discussion questions in small batches and it sometimes takes 15 copy and pastes to get it all in the chat. And students who login to Zoom late cannot see anything that was posted in the chat before they joined, so then I have to repeat the process to repost it again for the late students. 

When it comes to attendance, Zoom logs you in by First Name, Last Name; however, Bronx Science’s attendance in PupilPath/IOClassroom is organized by Last Name, First Name. So in order to make it work, I have to print out lists of student names for each of my Zoom classes using my printer at home, and I then have to check everyone in on the sheet when they come into the Zoom meeting. Zoom is just not set up for flawless teaching because that wasn’t its initial purpose, but it would be nice if they had prioritized ‘Zoom for Teaching,’ given that tens of thousands of teachers all around the world this year have been utilizing Zoom. They didn’t really make an effort to work with this important part of their business right now. 

And Zoom has built-in limitations. Open class discussions would be great if students could just ping-pong off one another’s comments, but not everyone can have their microphones on at the same time because that generates a lot of noise and it’s weird for the brain to hear a whole lot of different noises, so that just doesn’t work. 

In general, I do think the technology has been as good as it can be, and overall, I think it has worked pretty well. 

I am going to keep doing some of the technology that we’ve used this year. Google Classroom for example, makes it much easier to grade students’ homework with comments than it is the old fashioned way with pen and paper. Going forward, I’m just going to keep giving assignments in Google Classroom.

Also Google Classroom is synced with PupilPath/IOClassroom so when the teacher grades work in Google Classroom, you can click a button and the grades are easily transferred into PupilPath/IOClassroom. This saves hours of work for teachers as we no longer need to manually input 34 essay assignment grades for each class. The pandemic has been a mixed experience. While the human suffering on a global scale has been absolutely horrific, I’ve learned many things during the pandemic that I would not have otherwise learned, especially with my teaching. I never would have learned how to use Zoom before, and it is a handy program to know. 

I agree with the efficiency of Google Classroom. In the past (in-person), I’ve found that it was easier to be organized in classes where teachers already incorporated Google Classroom into their teaching process. It also generates less waste of paper and ink and prompts you to spend less money on supplies. There is no more carrying folders upon folders of paperwork and homework and fumbling through your bag for the one assignment that’s due.

GONZOWITZ: I don’t think there’s anything you could feasibly change in terms of the work. In an ideal world, I would have loved to see everyone with their camera on, but I understand that some of us don’t want to share that part of our lives, so I never pushed for that or expected it. It’s not something I could change, but it’s just something to wish for. 

How has balancing life during a pandemic along with the remote teaching been working out for you ? 

THORP: I think it’s been similar for both students and teachers. We’ve had to learn how to turn off the screen and step away, because in school, we had the bell schedule and designated times for extracurricular activities. Your alone-time at home is your own personal time. Now, with a consistent stream of daily e-mails from students and faculty, along with Zoom teaching and Google Classroom and electronic grading, it is hard to step away. I’m sure that students feel the same way with Google Classroom assignments and other virtual requirements. 

I’ve really had to make an effort to tell myself, ‘Okay, it’s 7 p.m., step away from the computer, read a book, have some tea, have some alone time,’ and to carve out time for myself. It’s been easier lately because I can go around the city and go to museums now as things are opening back up, but the first few months where everything was on lockdown were really difficult for all of us. 

I can relate to that. I would have moments of incredibly high productivity where I would complete incredible amounts of schoolwork all in one sitting and submit them all at the same time for each class, and I think you might have noticed that. It was like falling through an endless hole of work and technology and screen exposure. Lately, I’ve definitely had significantly less screen time on my phone, because I am so tired of staring at a screen. Screen fatigue is real. I don’t think human bodies are meant to be staring at screens at this frequency. We haven’t evolved to that point just yet. I hope we never will. Also, considering the excess of blue light and the adverse effects on eye health, it’s very important to turn off your phone and close your laptop. At the end of the day, all the work is still going to be there and it will still get done. We’re just humans, and in my opinion, it hasn’t been that long since we were hunting and gathering, so it’s also important to just connect with that and experience the natural world.

SCHORR: For myself, living alone, there was a certain amount of physical isolation, although friends always connect by phone and computer. On the other hand, I turned my living room into a yoga studio, and it helped me to keep going.  I also believe I was not alone in learning to reach out to people you care for yet haven’t spoken with – you find a gratitude in people simply that you thought of them. Getting out of the pandemic, I realize more than before how isolation and silent telephones can really shrink many people’s lives. We all know the adage: if you see something, say something.  Well, add this one: If you find yourself thinking of someone, tell THEM about it. It matters more than you know.

Mr. Schorr, Social Studies teacher, practiced yoga as a means of managing the stresses of living through the Coronavirus pandemic. (Fredric Schorr)

GONZOWITZ: The beginning of it was so stressful and so exhausting that once my whole day was over, and all the kids were asleep, I would just go to sleep. I didn’t have any energy to do anything. All of my hobbies disappeared, and I didn’t even try to find a hobby. Now, it’s trying to find a way to juggle everything, because the expectations are different. Many students have blessed me with copious amounts of work. So trying to find a way to schedule everything and find space to do things is challenging, and that’s just covering grading, planning, and teaching. It doesn’t include finding the space to make dinner, finding space to plan out a professional development where I’m trying to encourage people to be more open about their personal biases. Trying to juggle and balance all that has been difficult.

We will all return to in person school in September 2021. Do you believe that snow days will now be a thing of the past now that we can all just tune in via our computers? 

THORP: There will be no more snow days, because if we have a snow day, we can just switch to Zoom teaching at home, instead. On one level, I’m sad because as a kid, I loved snow days, but on another level, it’s kind of magical that we have that capability now and 80,000 New York City public school teachers are now trained to do this. 

When you think about it, the technology leap that occurred because of this pandemic is extraordinary. 

Personally, I’ve had days where although the city was covered in snow, school was still in session. However, because I live so far from the train station and the buses are very unreliable when the streets are covered in snow, I’ve had to return home for the sake of my physical health. So I would be much more comfortable taking virtual classes from home on days that it would be impossible to commute to school. 

There are other things as well. Next year, the New York City Department of Education is keeping Parent-Teacher Conferences on Zoom, because parents loved it. They could talk to many more teachers on Zoom instead of coming into the building, waiting in lines to talk with each teacher, and often running out of time before they were able to meet with every one of their child’s teachers. It’s convenient because meet with the teachers from the comfort of their own home. 

What are the major or prevalent emotions you’ve dealt with throughout this entire experience of living through the Coronavirus pandemic? 

THORP: When the pandemic first started, it was mostly a feeling of despair over the state of the world. I guess I was dealing with all the different stages of grief, and I was sad that the way of life that I had enjoyed thus far was essentially gone for the foreseeable future. 

There was a lot of fear and being scared of the unknown. Everyone was terrified because there was so little information both about the Coronavirus and how best to avoid it. The mask mandate wasn’t even implemented until about a month or so after the pandemic first started. 

Slowly, I developed a sense of acceptance, and when the COVID-19 vaccines came out and the numbers of people being vaccinated gradually increased, it was definitely a very positive feeling. Each day goes by and more people get vaccinated and the numbers of cases go down in this country. There’s a real sense of hope and relief for me with what the future holds. 

I’m definitely upset about the inequities of vaccine rollouts worldwide. You read about what’s going on in South America and India, and it’s very saddening. Luckily, we do live in America and although it has its flaws, the vaccine rollout here has been quite efficient, and that’s something to be grateful for. We really lucked out with Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, as they work better than anyone could have expected. 

Of course, it was a roll of the dice. If none of those vaccines worked, we would be in big trouble right now but they did, so we are very lucky.

This is one of those things we did very well in America as opposed to other responses to the pandemic. I know that some of my schoolmates are working with the Test & Trace Corps to go door to door and sign people up for COVID-19 vaccines and to spread awareness in general. Many students also used social media to inform people about vaccine availability and to guide them through the appointment process. 

Additionally, there are things I really miss, like traveling. My parents live in Chicago and I’m finally going to see them this summer. I wasn’t able to see them this past year and that was really hard.  Live music is also something that I’ve missed. I used to go to baroque music concerts all the time, but this past year, I haven’t gone to a single one.

BROOKS: I lost two very close friends during the pandemic, so while I am extraordinarily appreciative of the privilege of having a home and a steady career, I have also experienced great fear and crippling grief this year, amongst many other emotions that sometimes feel like they are at odds with each other. I know that many students have also experienced loss this year, and I am in awe of their resilience. 

GONZOWITZ: I’ve had moments of excitement of hope, and I’ve had moments of self-criticism. I beat myself up a lot more when something doesn’t land right, and I’ve always been a harsh critic of myself. So this really didn’t help as I can’t read people’s faces and can’t tell what they’re thinking. I’m always operating in this realm of wondering if I’m doing everything right. But I’ve also had a lot of excitement and happiness because I’ve had really amazing classes and really amazing moments, but then those moments get balanced out by concern and worry.

In your opinion, what is the worst part of the remote teaching experience, and the best part? 

BROOKS: In terms of the best part, I have loved welcoming students into my home. Every week, I hold extended office hours, and students from the past and present come together to work. Some students come with specific questions, while others come to just ‘hang out’ in a virtual setting with their friends. I think that we have done a decent job of recreating the SGI space at home. Witnessing students from different grades becoming friends and giving advice to each other has been really wonderful, and I am so appreciative of the joy that they have brought me this year. My students got to know my cats, my bookshelf, my kitchen, and I think that is pretty cool! 

SCHORR: The worst part, for me, was the difficulty in getting a certain number of students to submit gradable work on time, no matter how spaced apart the assignments were.  The best part was the extra time during asynchronous teaching to get more things together behind the scenes.

What are you most excited for now that complete in-person school will resume for the upcoming 2021-2022 academic year? 

THORP: I’m excited to be able to interact with students in-person again and to go back to doing what I love, teaching in person. I got into teaching to be able to engage students and to educate them about things I think are really important. So to be able to do that in-person once again is going to be wonderful. I also love photography. One of my favorite things on earth is handing a camera to a journalism student, training them to use it, and then watching them get increasingly better at photography as the months go by. They end up taking extraordinary photos that we publish in the school’s newspaper and the yearbook. Additionally, I am looking forward to seeing the in-person culture of the school come back. So many things have had to pivot online and they just don’t work as well such as the robotics team being able to built a robot together in person, or the orchestra practicing together in person. I’m most excited for students and teachers to be together again in the Bronx Science classrooms. 

GONZOWITZ: I can’t wait to see all of my colleagues and all of the sophomores I taught this year. I was telling the sophomores today during synchronous classes, ‘I can’t to see all of you in person this fall.’ It’s going to be really uplifting for me.

Ms. Brooks, English teacher, describes her gradual transition into regular life. ‘I played music in public recently with other humans, all of whom were too good for me, and I got sweaty and nervous, and it was heaven,’ Ms. Brooks said. (Kim Brooks)

Finally, do you have any messages for your students? Especially the seniors who are graduating after you’ve worked with many of them for a good part of their high school careers? 

THORP: The humanities are so incredibly important as the bedrock to everything. So many famous Bronx Science scientists and researchers have come back to visit as alumni and have said that their favorite classes were the English classes because that is where they learned how to write, which is so important in the sciences. No matter what field you go into, learning to write well is so important and is highly valued, so I really encourage all of my students to pursue writing in some capacity when they get to college. Write for your college newspaper, and read a lot.

BROOKS: I want the students to know that they should be immensely proud of themselves for making it through this year. Many of us might feel pressure to accomplish something tangible, but the real accomplishment is working our way through these difficult times slowly, asking for help when we need it, recognizing when we need to take a break, and looking out for each other. I have seen so much of this in our student body this year, and I hope that Bronx Science students can take a step back and recognize the accomplishment of doing their best this year, in whatever form that takes. 

GONZOWITZ: For my current students, I can’t wait to see you next year. For the seniors, I’m so excited that you’re going to get to live real life again this fall in college. Don’t take life for granted, because if there’s one thing this whole experience has taught us, it’s that we should not take the relationships we have with other people for granted. We should cherish every minute, because you never know when you’re not going to get to see or hug somebody, or shake hands with somebody again.

Throughout the past year, our teachers have remained cheerful, strict, excited, demanding, and encouraging, all in order to nurture their students and keep them on track, insisting that they do not give up.

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