Life lessons

The coronavirus has teachers connecting with students in new, heartfelt ways

This quote is presumably still on the whiteboard in Ken George’s classroom at Central High

Forest Hills Central High English teacher Ken George has been journaling daily to document these unprecedented times. He shares his journal  — along with a daily video — with all his students every day, hoping to motivate and energize them, he said. He also uses them to model writing techniques he has covered in his Honors 10 class. Here are excerpts from two of his journals. Said George, “I’m finding out my students like the ones with a message better than the ones that just talk about how much laundry I did — shocker.”

Central High teacher Ken George, with wife, Meg, and sons Tyler, 20, left, and Jordan, 22

Monday, March 23, 2020 – 9:52 a.m.

“Fear doesn’t travel well. Just as it can warp judgment, it’s absence can diminish memory’s truth.” – Arthur Miller, in an essay about “The Crucible”

“Live in the sunshine. Swim the sea. Drink the wild air.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

These two quotes lived on my classroom whiteboards for quite a while this school year. In fact, the Emerson quote is still up there, written in orange marker on a board that I haven’t looked at or written on in a week in a classroom that sits empty still. 

We talked about the Emerson quote often; do you remember? I talked about how my One Word for the year was “enjoy,” and how sometimes (maybe all the time) I got caught up in my worries and schedule and to-do list, and responsibilities and failed to focus on the beauty in life and nature. It is a fault that I’ve worked on diligently since January 1, and I’ve improved. I looked through my notebook yesterday and saw every word all of you chose and put on the classroom wall.

Positivity. Presence. Clarity. Live. Commit. Innovate. Tenacity. Overcome. Strong. Bliss. Confidence. Patience. Ambitious. Declutter. Hope. Breathe.

Slow. Release. Appreciate. Consistency. Motivation. Joyful. Better. Might. Focus. Forgiveness. Diligence. Proactive. Faith.

Mindset. Prevail. Clarity. Glad. Peace. Calm. Rise. Kindness. Accountability.

Serenity. Nostalgic. Forgiving. Selfless.

Appreciation. Gratitude.

Yes. See. Be. Me.

What a list. These are your words and your lives. You thought of these and wrote these and posted these and sent me a video talking about your word.

Can you believe how pertinent this is right now? It’s like we all saw this coming and knew we would need our words to navigate the new normal. You are all gifted and hard-working and introspective. Now is the time, ladies and gentlemen, for you to put your word into action — yes, you can do this from your couch or your bed or your family room.

Do it! Be proactive and clean your room like you’ve never cleaned it. Show gratitude for your family by doing the dishes, looking your parent(s) in the eye and thanking them for providing you with a roof and food and support. Be nostalgic by going to your basement and pulling out the old pictures and videos — and be joyful by laughing hysterically with your family about the outfit you wore for fourth-grade pictures. Be ambitious and declutter your Google drive.

Say yes to your mom (if you are fortunate enough to be with her today) and see how stressed she is and just be thankful for her tenacity. Now is your opportunity.

The first quote about fear came up when we studiedThe Crucible.” I remember our discussion about the Red Scare and how it’s impossible to make you feel the fear people lived with at that time. And, I talked about 9-11 and how shocking it was the first time I heard a plane a week later. As you sat in my classroom, I told you that I couldn’t replicate the fear of those situations. Now, YOU are the generation living through an unprecedented time.

Before you know it, you’ll be standing in front of your kids or your younger siblings who don’t understand what is happening now, or maybe a classroom of students you are teaching. You’ll tell them about the lockdown, the closed restaurants, the virus statistics, and the lost graduations, sports seasons, and musicals. You’ll tell them about how you essentially stayed in your house for weeks. Most likely, they’ll look at you, nod, and try to feel what you’re describing. But, “fear doesn’t travel well,” so they won’t get it. What an amazing life lesson you are learning through this pandemic.

Stay positive and live your word, everybody, and make this your best day yet.

Sunday, March 22, 2020 – 1:27 p.m.

Good afternoon –

My first thought today is about the multiple times I talked in class about toughness and what is really difficult and what isn’t. I think it was mostly in response to comments I had heard in the halls from students like “I can’t wait for Friday” or “I can’t read 25 pages of Huck Finn tonight, it’s so boring” or “Only 17 more days until Spring Break.”

I’m pretty sure some of you are probably thinking this is difficult, too. Some students might think it’s hard to stay at home and not see your friends (if you’re doing the full quarantine thing that most people are doing) and it’s hard to be at home all day with some online work, etc. But, I’m sure YOU are not thinking that because you know better and we’ve talked a lot about life, toughness, and fortunateness (yep, that’s a word) in class. I trust that you know better.

This is NOT hard. This is inconvenient, maybe. For most of you, your days are spent doing some school work, playing some video games, reading, eating home-cooked meals, and probably doing some chores. That is NOT hard. Inconvenient? Yes, definitely.

Hard is having someone in your family or extended family who gets the virus and has to be hospitalized or has to struggle with the symptoms at home.

Hard is not having Internet access and being totally isolated in a small home or apartment.

Hard is having to cancel a wedding or 50th wedding anniversary party that impacts 250 people.

I repeat — for most of us — what we are going through is NOT hard.

So, today’s journal is about rethinking this situation and a reality check. The reality is that most of us are stuck in our houses or near our houses with little interaction with friends, extended family, significant others, etc. But, we can still go outside and take a walk or play fetch with our dogs (I’ve tried with Scout the cat, but she just stares at me, confused). We can still talk to our friends (if you have some, unlike ‘you know who’) via Facetime or Zoom or whatever. And, NEVER AGAIN IN YOUR LIFE, will you have this much time to improve yourself physically, emotionally, and mentally. So, like the quote from “Dead Poets Society”: “Seize the day” and make the most of it. That’s my message for you today.

As for me, I am keeping up with my goals, and transferred my goals sheet to an excel spreadsheet so I can keep better track. Here is my list again:

  1. Lift and do core work (30 mins)
  2. Read (30 mins)
  3. Walk (30 mins)
  4. Grade papers and projects (30 mins)
  5. Interact with students via technology (30 mins)
  6. House project (1 hour)
  7. Journal (30 mins)
  8. Video – on weekdays (5 mins)
  9. 2-hour phone break
  10. Wake up around 8 a.m.
  11. Write my second book – start a third – I’m putting this one off until I’m finished with grading all of the “Great Gatsby” papers.

I took about a 4-mile walk yesterday to the mailbox by the gas station at 28th and Cascade to mail the bills. It took me quite a while, but I spent about 45 minutes of the walk on the phone with my college basketball coach, Mike Turner. He’s been a good friend of mine for the past 30 years since I graduated from Albion. He’s been in “quarantine” for the last eight weeks already because he had major foot surgery and has had to stay in a chair all day. We had a great talk about the good old days and even discussed writing a book together someday. He’s a good man.

I also started reading a new book yesterday called “The Good Boy.” It’s pretty intriguing overall, and it kept my interest for at least an hour. Other than that, I just did everything else on my list: lifted, graded papers, etc. It was a productive day overall.

Remember, what most of us are going through is not hard. And, if you or your family is truly dealing with hardship, I’m thinking about you and I’m here to help.

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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