Author: Dispatches Editor

Grading, and Other Existential Questions by Dana Paz

Grading, and Other Existential Questions by Dana Paz

Since I started teaching, few things have occupied my thoughts like grading. I’ve tried many grading approaches (grading scales from 1-100, holistic grading, standards-based rubrics, even (gah) students grading themselves). All I wanted was to find the fairest way of grading—an approach that honors what students can do, that shows them clearly where they are in terms of meeting what is expected of them, and that focuses more on learning than behavior. This is a lot to ask of a grading system, but I was determined to try. So I decided to embark on an inquiry project to implement a 4-point, standards-based grading system. I found that even thinking about grading in these terms made an impact on my approach to teaching, and interacting with students. Further, I found that students, parents and other teachers were thoroughly confused by this new system, even while they liked the effects it had on their grades. My findings played almost like a stream of consciousness in my head—made up of different voices (my students, their parents, my colleagues, and myself), so writing “bricks” or vignettes of these thoughts made perfect sense as a way to present my findings. Then, when I was reading my words back to myself, I started seeing a movie in my head that I wanted to share. Hence, the videos, which you can watch by clicking on the title of each vignette. 

Problem of practice: how can I stop grading on behavior, as this invariably affects the same kids, every time. 

What do you mean, “Grades are arbitrary?”

You’ll be assessed on reading, writing, speaking and listening. That’s what we do in English class. Mr. Ellington gives an automatic ZERO if you don’t capitalize the i. Because as an 8th grader if you can’t do this you obviously can’t do English. She is so with it during our class discussions, and she really gets the reading, but her grades… What does she need help with? Well, she didn’t do the big essay so she can’t get better than a D anymore. His work is genius but it’s always late, so that’s why he’s failing, Mrs. Robinson. Because he is being assessed on reading, writing, speaking, listening and punctuality. In THE REAL WORLD, you can’t get away with just phoning it in. You need to make an effort at everything you do or you won’t get paid. Is this true? Does everybody know this? Because I don’t think your REAL WORLD and my REAL WORLD are the same place. A 50% means you fail at reading because you can’t tell me half of the events that happened in Ch. 4. Wait, if I can’t tell you half of the events, doesn’t that mean I can tell you half of the events? Yes, but this is English, not Math, so pipe down.

Explain – Tweak – Repeat

Step one: apply a grading scale of 1-4. This is fairer than the 100% grading scale because there is only a one-point difference between an F and a D, rather than a 59 point difference. A (4) is an A. It means you really get it; you get it so well that you could teach it. A (3) is a B, it means you mostly get it, but it’s not perfect. Huge parenthesis (I am aware here of a deep truth within myself and that is that I am a walking 3: I mostly get it, but it’s not perfect. I feel this is true for most people.) A (2) is a C. This is not average, because by now I have learned that “average is a myth”. It means you don’t get it YET, but you will get it if you add the highlighted items in the rubric. A (1) is a D, and if you get a (1), it is code for “you didn’t try,” or, “you left most things blank.” After much explanation and tweaking, most people get the 4-point grading scale. There are fewer As. There are also far fewer Fs, and a seemingly balanced amount of Bs, Cs, and Ds. In fact, more and more teachers are using it. So, I am now ready to keep explaining and tweaking.

Step Two Hundred

One of my colleagues said, “I started doing learning targets in my gradebook and I’m never going back! Now I can tell students exactly what standard they need to work on when they’re concerned about their grades!” The exclamation points actually hung around her head as she said this. I thought Ok!!!! I will try this. Though many question marks hung around my head. For instance, how many students will give a hoot about learning standards anyway? And, could it  help me plan? And know what to reteach? And give me more valuable information to share with parents? And have an answer for the constant, Why are we learning this? Then came the week-long project of translating a zillion standards into student-friendly language, with big, healthy air-quotes hanging in the air around those words. My idea of “student-friendly” is not everyone’s idea… So many iterations later, I had my list and was ready for the gradebook. I am the kind of person who just naturally has more question marks than exclamation points surrounding me.

Ands Buts and Sos

Aries assignments are (one) record of a teacher’s accomplishments. (Trying not to think of that sea of red). Last year, it read, “Narrative Essay.” This year? “I can engage the reader by providing descriptions of setting and characters,” and “I can use narrative techniques like dialogue and reflection to develop the story.” What assignment is that? Help me understand your gradebook. Was this a worksheet? Was this a quiz? Well, I’m doing it this way because it helps me break down what students can (will) or can’t (won’t) do. No, other people don’t understand it at first, including parents and students. (“Can you tell me why Josh has a C? He’s not missing any assignments.”) BUT, I can now show students and parents at a glance where the struggle is. (“Josh is very smart and a pleasure to have in class. However, his writing is very brief and he has missed including some of the elements we discussed in class. You can see with the breakdown in Aeries that his reading learning targets are at a 3-4, and his writing learning targets are at a 1-2.”) AND, as I pulled out last year’s assignments and went to “translate” to a standard, I found that some of them DID NOT MEET ANY STANDARD AT ALL and were just BUSY WORK. Does anyone really need to be more busy?  AND this alone has been valuable, not because everything we do must meet a standard, but because if it doesn’t, I want to know that. AND this has been a way for students to understand their learning targets, or at least be consistently exposed to them. AND at a glance I can now look at my gradebook and see the balance of learning targets between speaking, listening, reading and writing. Holy cow, we sure do have a lot of reading, and not very much listening. SO I will stay the course AND tweak and explain (always tweak and explain), BUT I will stay the course.

Any Given Day

We are starting our narrative essay. Write about an experience you’ve had. Here is a model. You see how the writer introduces the characters? They establish the point of view, here. You see the setting? The exposition as a whole? That is important. Note the description! The figurative language. The imagery! That is important. Do you see how the author has captured character traits through dialogue? And reflection? That is important. As writers, the most important thing is to make the reader FEEL something. And remember, add a conclusion! Don’t leave us hanging! That is important. 


“How many sentences does this have to be?”

They just sit there.

“They just sit there.” This is true in my class. In other classes, these same students do more than just sit there: “Mason was drawing inappropriate male anatomy parts on another students arm during class.” “He told me ‘go to hell/fuck yourself’ in Spanish”. “Chris was kicked out of class for being disruptive (tripping kids while running, grabbing boys in their private parts, using profanity).” “Repeated disruption and disrespect.  While trying to talk to the whole class she interrupts the whole time with her own little comments.  One of the comments she said included the F word.  I cannot teach with her in my classroom, the whole class misses out on half of instruction time because she takes over class.” So yes, in my class, “they just sit there.” Dare I call that a win? They are quiet. They are listening – I think? Every once in a while, they’ll comment on our class discussion. Yes, “they just sit there,” but they don’t leave. They are failing multiple classes, but in my class they get a 1, because “they just sit there.” No, they’re not meeting the standard, and they know that they are woefully shy of meeting the standard but they’ll also not be tossed overboard with an F around their neck . At least the kid who is in there scrawling IDK on pieces of paper is there, and maybe at some point he’ll talk. Maybe at some point he’ll get past the idk. But he definitely wouldn’t if he wasn’t sitting there.

Dana Paz received her BA in Social Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley in 2005. She lived and worked in her native Guatemala as a grant writer for international development projects for 12 years. She relocated back to California with her family and received her Masters in Education at Chico State in 2019. She is in her fourth year of teaching English Language Arts to 7th and 8th graders at CK Price Intermediate School in Orland, CA. As an immigrant from Guatemala who found academic success relatively late in life, Dana strives to build her students’ confidence in finding their voice. For her, the best part is the immense variety of what students share and the moments of genius that come through. When she’s not teaching, writing or reading, Dana enjoys long bike rides, hiking, yoga and spending time with her husband and son. 

In the Summer Institute and throughout the year, Northern California Writing Project teacher consultants are invited to engage with in-depth writing prompts in generative groups. We believe classrooms hold the world inside of them, and teachers witness the impact of family systems, larger culture, local communities, political debate, and public health, alongside their own lives. Dispatches is a place where we explore these intersections and tangles, joys and impossibilities, with the aim to honor our educators and those they teach.

How to Begin to Recover from Being a Teacher Trolled on International News in 30 Easy Steps

How to Begin to Recover from Being a Teacher Trolled on International News in 30 Easy Steps

Written by a teacher in America about her real experiences

  1. Create a TikTok account. Preferably during the pandemic to keep yourself occupied. Watch as the algorithm melds itself to send you teacher video after teacher video, and then think to yourself, I could do that.
  2. Begin making content. First, create video memes: follow the trends other creators are memeing, using sounds from Spongebob and RuPaul, borrowing songs from Taylor Swift and SNL to make thirty second videos about the difficulties of distance learning and the sadness of Zoom classrooms.
  3. Decide to slowly shift into making original content. Look directly into the camera. You don’t know yet to avoid the Millennial pause, and you zoom in on your face which identifies you immediately as the cringey, amateur, 35-year-old creator that you are. Don’t care about being cringey: spout your hot takes about the education system online for strangers, because it helps get you through the day.
  4. Go viral. Sit in your car and talk to your phone over the steering wheel about why distance learning is so hard for Gen Z. Get over half a million views, with hundreds of comments from teenagers lamenting the pandemic classrooms, thanking you for understanding. Gain 10k followers overnight.
  5. Watch as your videos continue to go viral. Smile when your videos get stitched and duetted by verified content creators. Get interviewed by a popular podcaster about reasons behind teenage rage in the classroom post-distance learning. Feel finally validated as an educator. Feel your ever-present imposter syndrome start to fade.
  6. Join a professional development (PD) with an antibias, antiracist focus, reading works like Linguistics Justice by Dr. April Baker-Bell. Let your heart sing: you’ve been trying to decolonize your classroom since the get-go. Decide your PD project will be to create a linguistics-based unit for your juniors, discussing some rules of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) in leading up to reading Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and writing an informative essay about character identity.
  7. Grin as you watch your students get wholly invested in this unit. They love “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so much that “single story” becomes a part of the classroom vernacular. Tell them not to cuss in class, and laugh when they respond, “I’m just code switching!”
  8. Consider your options when the PD facilitators explain that you must present your research findings to the group. You can make a slideshow. You can write an essay. Or, you can make videos.
  9. Create your series of seven videos on TikTok that cover your linguistics unit. Fail to see the potential pitfall in using phrases like “fighting white supremacy” and “grammar is arbitrary.”
  10. Watch, in complete horror over your coffee on a Sunday morning, as the tidal wave of conservative hate fills your comments sections. Where is this coming from? you wonder. Read a comment that says, “Libs of TikTok will make sure you get fired,” and naively tilt your head: What’s that? 
  11. Fall down the Twitter rabbit hole of hatred, because this anti-LGBT, transphobic, anti-educator Twitter platform has targeted your videos for being “woke.” Don’t eat that day; you can’t stop scrolling through the comments of people who say they will come for your job, come for your school, come for your life. We will find out which car is yours, and run you off the road!!!!!! ricochets around in your skull. Watch as they dox you, your home address posted to the cesspool of vitriol that is Libs of TikTok.
  12. Reel again in horror as you read an email from a FOX News correspondent who wants to interview you for a piece on educator wokeness. Take deep breaths. Don’t respond.
  13. Call your principal. She calls the superintendent. He calls the school board. They tell you to stop posting on TikTok and make your account private. Despite the trauma, feel a squeeze of sadness in your chest. The hate will stop, but so will the love.
  14. Call the police, file a report.
  15. Order a security system.
  16. Read the FOX News article about you. Sit in shock, unable to process anything besides the fact that they literally chose the worst screenshots of you possible.
  17. Watch as shitty celebrities like Jordan Peterson and Ann Coulter tweet about you.
  18. Watch as you make TV. FOX News correspondent Harris Faulkner features you on The Faulkner Focus. She claims your videos say that students of color are too stupid to understand grammar. How could they get it so wrong? 
  19. Read the hateful emails you receive at your school account, now that your TikTok has been made private. They call the district office. They call your principal. She asks you if you’re okay. Remind her that one email called you a “whore pig” that needs to be “slaughtered.”
  20. Google yourself (you know you shouldn’t, but you can’t help it). Read the articles posted about you from journalists in England, Ireland, India. I didn’t know they cared about “wokeness” in India.
  21. Hold tight to positivity. The student leader of the Black Student Union at your school visits to tell you he loved your videos. A Black educator in Texas emails to ask if you can friend her on TikTok, because she needs to see your content, needs to see that there are white allies out there.
  22. Hold your breath as you watch the next school board meeting broadcasted live on your district’s YouTube channel. Parents, teachers, and community members line up at the podium to demand you be fired. The school board members respond with blank stares; the lawyers have coached them not to say anything. How come no one is standing up for you? your partner asks.
  23. Continue showing up to work. Teach A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry. Teach Fences by August Wilson. Teach James Baldwin and MLK and Maya Angelou. I love reading about Black lives, a student tells you. The internet does what the internet does best: eventually, it moves on. The death threats stop. The emails cease.
  24. Watch Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez lambast Libs of TikTok in a House committee meeting because their content instigated a bomb threat made on a children’s hospital for providing gender-affirming care. 
  25. Thank students for their gifts. They’ve always given you random gifts, and they continue to. Smile at a stuffed animal goat holding a heart that says, “You’re the GOAT: Greatest of All Teachers,” and realize you haven’t thought about FOX News for several days.
  26. Read dystopian literature in your spare time.
  27. Plant a vegetable garden.
  28. Adopt a dog.
  29. Recognize that recovery will be a process.
  30. Continue to feel inspired by teachers doing great work to advocate on TikTok for their students.
Inquiry by Julia Murphy

Inquiry by Julia Murphy

In the Summer Institute and throughout the year, Northern California Writing Project teacher consultants are invited to engage with in-depth writing prompts in generative groups. We believe classrooms hold the world inside of them, and teachers witness the impact of family systems, larger culture, local communities, political debate, and public health, alongside their own lives. Dispatches is a place where we explore these intersections and tangles, joys and impossibilities, with the aim to honor our educators and those they teach.

How do I separate the idea or practice of teaching from the feelings of teaching?
What is the place of feelings in teaching?
What is the place of feelings in learning?
Why does high school feel so bad (to me?)
Does high school empirically feel bad?
Who thrives in high school?

What do youngs want?
What do they NOT want?
Is desire incompatible with reality?
Which reality?

Where is the best place to ask questions?
Is it safe to ask questions in school?
Is it safe to be wrong in school?
For whom is it safe to ask questions/ be wrong in school?

What do we not know, that we need to know?
What did we know once, but have forgotten?
Do we need to learn, or just remember?
Is there a space for remembering?
How far back does remembering go?

How do we become whole people?

  1. In everything worth doing, there is a sacredness.

What do I say to students watching a TikTok of Russian bombs exploding in Ukraine?
What do I say to students on their phone with their mother, evacuating as propane tanks blow up like bombs, in a town engulfed in flames?
What do I say to students who worry about the future?
What do I say to students who worry?
What do I say to students?
What do I say
What do

Where is the place that feels safe?
Is it with each other?

How do we know when we are loved?
Is tough love really love?
Is all love tough; but at the same time, kind?
Can we be tough and kind?
Where/when do we need to be tough?
Do we need to be tough?

Who are we when we let our guard down?
What is our guard guarding?
Who is our guard?

Is the scorn we feel from other people real?
Is this where our shame comes from?

Where does our shame come from?

Why do I think of high school and shame in the same thought?

Is it all the nightmares of being naked in school?
Why does the body carry shame?
How does the body carry shame over to our minds?
How is shame used to motivate people?
How is shame used to motivate people in school?
Is shame necessary, to learn how to be a person?
What place does shame have in our culture?

NOTE: “Our culture” being middle class white culture
Because education is middle class white culture
Because acknowledging white privilege might induce shame
And that kind of shame is unacceptable
The kind that comes with making a mistake
Because education doesn’t make mistakes
Because data-driven and standards-based is objective reality
And education is now in the bright light of objective reality
And this latest (PBIS, Nurtured Heart, Race for the Top) is the best framework
The very best and latest in educational frameworks
And administrators don’t make mistakes
Although “lies, damned lies, and statistics”
But white middle class culture doesn’t make mistakes
Not mistaking a phone for a gun
Not a mistaken hail of bullets in a no-knock raid
Not mistaken systems of redlining and restrictive real estate covenants
Not mistakenly denying other people’s cultures experiences reality humanity

Not mistakenly denying other people’s cultures experiences reality humanity.

  2. In everything worth doing, there is an impossible ideal.

How do I be a person who matters
When a swastika shows up on class materials
And I wish someone important would come make a statement to my class,
But all I have is myself—
Is that enough?

Why is every tardy punished with a detention
When a swastika blossoms like a tumor and is dealt with in secret,
With no resolution,
As though hate has ever done anything but flourish in secrecy?
As though the greater crime is not being on time?

Why does my mind go from crime to punishment?
What did that ever change?
Swastikas, still.

What are we missing?

What do we not know, that we need to know?
What did we know once, but have forgotten?
…Is shame necessary, to learn how to be a person?
What place does shame have in our culture?

How do shame, mistakes, punishment, and white culture play out in school?
When does a mistake become a crime?

Is school safe for people from different cultures?
Where is a safe place for people from different cultures?
Is safety an illusion?
Why are we so scared?
How does this fear affect us in our bodies?
In our lived experience?

NOTE: There are different levels of real and present threat.
White culture’s imagined threats are given precedence over other cultures’ real threats.

NOTE: Poor white (people) may be part of white culture’s imagined threats.

Are white people imagining a time when white culture is not dominant, and that is where the fear is?
The imagined threat?

How does this relate to education?
How does this relate to making a mistake?
How does this relate to our guard, and what it’s guarding?
Who is the “us” I refer to?

middle class white Us
I cannot not belong here

I do know (believe) that there is a place for each of us; and by that us, I mean US, all of us.
I do know (believe) that I want safety for everyone, a place to just be.

Where is a place to just be?
Our place?
My place?
Are they different places?

    3. In everything worth doing, we find ourselves and our place in the world.

How do we come to the idea of work?
What is my work?
Is my job getting in the way of my work?
What am I doing when I’m not making a living?
If we say that “time is money,” how does that diminish time?

Why do we make distinctions between work-life and life-life?
Why do we have guards, or different people, for our different lives?
What are we protecting?
Who are we protecting it from?

Does the “we” determines the “what” (we protect)?

Who is safe right now?
What is safety?

Is it time to invite these questions into our practice and relations?

Our practice= our work, if not our job.
Our relations= how each of us individually identifies, in relation to the collective.
The everything.

How much of the everything must we know?

What is knowing?
How is knowing different from feeling?
Can we have legitimacy from a place of feeling, or does it need to be knowing to be legitimate?

What is legitimacy?
Who decides?
Is it the same as authority?
How does legitimacy relate to experience?
How does legitimacy relate to being right?

NOTE: Teachers like to be right.
Teachers put importance on being right.
Teachers like to be sure they are right.

How can teachers be sure they are right?
How does it affect students, if teachers are always (sure they are) right?

  4. In everything worth doing, we begin by doing it wrong.

And do it again,
And learn
—And find the possible

Is dominant white middle class culture product-based, or process-based?
Are we teaching for products, or processes?
Are we teaching to be right, or for liberation?
Are we teaching gently, creatively, organically?
(Not always)
Are we teaching with joy and solidarity?
(Not always)

Is it possible?

I know (believe) that it is,
Or that it could be,
—by moving bravely towards the impossible

Can we build a bridge to the impossible out of questions?

Am I ready to start building this bridge
Not knowing where it will take me

Certain that I will leave the world before it is done,
But also certain that its building is my life’s work?

Look. I have begun.

will you build with me?

Julia Murphy is an artist, educator, and regular person. She lives in Chico, CA. 

Lockdown by Taylor Erickson

Lockdown by Taylor Erickson

In the Summer Institute and throughout the year, Northern California Writing Project teacher consultants are invited to engage with in-depth writing prompts in generative groups. We believe classrooms hold the world inside of them, and teachers witness the impact of family systems, larger culture, local communities, political debate, and public health, alongside their own lives. Dispatches is a place where we explore these intersections and tangles, joys and impossibilities, with the aim to honor our educators and those they teach.

(TW: This piece refers to an emergency alert, potential active shooter, and the subsequent lockdown)

Thursday November 18, 2021

The 10:34 am bell is about to ring.

All masked, students file into the fluorescent lit classroom and make their way to their desks. I greet their half-covered faces with my usual exuberance, prompting them to open up their Chromebooks. I plan to start class on time, as usual.  Not bad for three months into pandemic teaching.

Since COVID protocol requires classroom doors to be open at all times during class sessions, I explained that I was locking the door  due to the tardy sweep. According to the email sent this morning, tardy students would be temporarily locked out of the class, given a scolding lecture in the auditorium, and then sent back to class. Maybe that would encourage punctuality?

I head for the door to lock it. Right. On. Time.

As I’m about to lock it, a disembodied female voice comes onto the intercom:

“Attention students and teachers: the tardy sweep has been canceled. Once again, the tardy sweep has been canceled.” 

“So much for nothing,” I thought.  

The bell rings. 10:34 am. Back to business.

According to the lesson plan, we were reviewing the plot of the Great Depression novella, Of Mice and Men. It’s the part of the story where Curley’s wife is strangled to death in the barn. She never saw that coming. A very absurd, unexpected way to die.

We just finished the daily warm up. Before I’m about to tell students to open up to the book to start reading, the same female voice comes on to the intercom again.

“This is a lockdown. I repeat, this is a lockdown.” 


An intruder?

A shooter?

What is it?

I’ve only gone through one serious lockdown in my teaching career so far. 

What was the lockdown code? We never rehearsed this as a school, even though California Ed Code requires it. Knowing the code would have helped.

So six minutes ago it was “don’t lock your doors” to cancel the tardy sweep. Now, it’s “lock your doors” because it’s a lockdown? Was this some kind of joke?

In order to protect the 33 other young lives in the room, I had to assume the worst: someone with a weapon on this campus.

The current ALICE training teaches three basic actions: run, hide, defend. Contrary to popular belief, barricading isn’t always the best option in the event you need to quickly escape. At any rate, it’s hard to figure out the best option when you have no information.

So then, what do you do when you have no information? 

“Lock the doors!” I said.

I grab my baseball bat (as if that’ll help in the face of an active shooter?) and my cell phone. I was in military mode.

Students have confused looks on their faces.

“Ms. Erickson, what’s going on?”

“Everyone steer clear of the doors” I commanded. “To the wall!”

If someone had a gun on campus, we’d need to move fast.. Some immediately picked up their belongings and gathered by the wall. Others moved slowly, confused, in denial.

“Quickly!” I said.

They all packed up against the wall like sardines. Social distancing was no longer a thing, and their masks weren’t properly fastened. A lockdown in a pandemic: the worst combination you could ever ask for.

You never want to be near windows or doors if someone shoots through the door. Bullets could penetrate through. 

“Whoa, Ms. Erickson!” a student said. “Chill out!” 

That was Derek. He’s a senior who failed freshmen English and was forced against his will to make up credits in my class. 

Derek walked towards the door. 

“Derek, don’t open the door,” I stated. 

“It’s fine, “he said. He opened it and looked outside. He casually glanced from side to side. 

“There’s nothing out here,” he said. “I don’t get what the big deal is.” 

“Derek! LOCK THE DOOR!” I yelled.  “THIS IS A LOCKDOWN!”

I never yell at students. I’m always very polite, even to students like Derek who have no respect for authority. But in a lockdown, there is no time for niceness. No time for stupid mistakes. We didn’t know what the threat was.

I am responsible for 33 other lives right now. 

Someone might have a gun on this campus. They might head for our room. What if they start shooting at our room? Where are they right now?

When you are in complete ignorance as to which threat is actually out there, you have to take this seriously. Every minute matters. The 1999 Columbine library massacre took only seven minutes. Two active shooters–both teenagers who attended the high school– killed 10 students and injured 24.  With more decisive and timely action, could their lives have been saved that day?

Seven minutes.

I refuse to let myself and my students become victims—if I can help it.

So we waited for further instruction.

Even with the color codes, it’s not clear which kind of threat you’re faced with. Certainly, there are many different reasons for a lockdown. A lockdown can be activated for something as simple as an unconfirmed stranger walking around with a cane, a robbery that took place near the school, a vicious animal on the loose or an unconfirmed weapon.

An unconfirmed weapon.

This would be my second official lockdown in my teaching career so far. When I taught in Redding, we had one serious lockdown. It was activated because a random guy came to the front office to return paperwork before going hunting. Unfortunately, he forgot that he couldn’t have his hunting gun with him on a school campus. The moment he laughed and joked with the office clerk, “Oh shoot! I probably shouldn’t have my gun with me, right?” then the alarms were activated. His careless mistake set that whole district  into a traumatic lockdown. This is only darkly humorous in hindsight, though.

During a lockdown, you’re supposed to check your email for updates. My hands were shaking as I clicked open the email on my laptop. 

At 10:56  am my email read:

This morning there was an incident on campus. Out of an abundance of caution, the school was placed into lockdown at 10:47 am with the assistance of the MH Police Department. Students remain safe in their classrooms.The investigation is ongoing. We will continue to provide updates once the lockdown has been lifted.

Thank you,

Administrative Team

The term “incident” remained vague and unsettling. Students checked social media and heard rumors of a fight with a knife and brass knuckle. The ongoing rumors aggravated my ears.

It was like we were hiding in a war zone waiting for the next command. Would we get out alive?

We were all sitting in a dark room waiting for orders. In moments like this, your mind wanders to the worst places. I tapped my foot on the floor.

Meanwhile, students waited in the dark classroom, huddled against the wall. Some grew tired and bored. Some lay across the desks, pulled out their phones and started taking pictures. The phones and camera flashes were the only source of artificial light in this dark room. A pacifier in these pugatorial moments of uncertainty. 

“Did you hear anything yet?” a student asked nervously. He seemed to be the only one sharing my same concerns.

“No,” I said. “Still on standby,” I said. 

I kept clicking refresh on my email to see if any updates would come in.

Does hearing nothing mean that we’ll be okay?

“Ms. Erickson,” Joanna asks, “How much longer are we going to be here?” 

“I have no idea,” I said.

Joanna and her friend Maria decide to watch a movie on  her phone together. The Titanic. Watching a cruiseliner plunge into the frigid Atlantic during a lockdown?  No thank you.

“We may need to run out of here FYI,” I said.

“But Leonardo DiCaprio is so cute!” one said.

How are my students so chill about this? 

Was it because they’ve gone through so many lockdowns since kindergarten? Was it because they’ve been on COVID quarantine lockdown since 2020? Was it because they’re already saturated in violent video games and TV shows? The more you’re exposed, the more desensitized you become, I guess.

Maybe if I went through more lockdowns, I wouldn’t be shaking right now. My heart wouldn’t be pounding. I wouldn’t be thinking of the Columbine victims. The Parkland victims. The Sandy Hook victims. They never saw that coming, and didn’t think the school would be shot up that day. No one ever wants to entertain these notions.

Yet no matter how often lockdowns or a violent incident occurs, it still needs to be taken seriously. 

I check my email at least 10 times within the next minute, engulfed in my computer screen, hoping for some more information, more certainty to act on.

Still nothing. 

Should I go back to the lesson? I’ve never felt both frightened for my life and bored at the same time. I guess that’s why some teachers decided to keep teaching during the lockdown; at least it gave everyone some kind of productive distraction, rather than to be tortured by uncertainty.

I tapped my right foot on the floor. When can I run?

As we waited and waited, some teachers apparently were letting their students outside to use the bathroom during the lockdown. During an ACTUAL LOCKDOWN, you’re not supposed to open your doors at all, until you hear the “ALL CLEAR.”

Another email pops up in my inbox:

Please keep students inside your classroom regardless of anything.  We are on a lockdown and need everyone secured.  Will notify when it is all clear.  Parents have been notified.

Still no specific information on the exact threat on our campus. I wasn’t going to take chances and assume it was safe to let students outside to use the bathroom. One wrong move and lives are lost.

Yet some still felt secure in this entire process. Some teachers also kept posting work in Google Classroom during the lockdown. Some even gave tests and required students to continue their test. They said regardless of the lockdown, the work would still need to be finished by the end of the day. Students weren’t allowed to call their parents UNTIL they finished their tests.

To some extent, I can understand this. How else do you occupy yourself and 33 other bored people while you’re locked in a classroom? One teacher told me later her rationale: “It gave them something productive to do.” 

Just keep going.

For whatever reason, this isn’t my trauma response. It it still makes me wonder why some teachers continued to teach in the face of a threat:

Was it because these teachers have been through so many lockdowns with no actual threat? 

Was it because they were just downright desensitized to 21st century violence?

Was it their own way of feeling secure as a coping mechanism in the face of danger?

It’s about 11:30am, and by now we would have finished the reading. We’re all still huddled in a dark room, confused.

I can’t do this. I can’t teach. I can’t do anything but check my email and wait to run. We don’t know what is out there. We don’t know what will happen.

Later that afternoon, we would finally find out that the lockdown was more of an investigation of a fight incident that broke out during brunch around 10:15 am. At the time of the lockdown, police were investigating whether a weapon was involved, and needed classrooms to hold in place while they searched for the weapon. A knife and a brass knuckle, they said.

So it wasn’t an active shooter, thankfully. We weren’t necessarily in immediate danger, I guess. There were potentially two weapons on the campus.

Should I have kept teaching like everyone else? 

There was no way of knowing we were safe. 

I never make assumptions that I am promised tomorrow. Maybe that’s just a life philosophy thing, which is why I take lockdowns seriously, no matter how often they occur.  I can’t afford to be desensitized.

The 12:16pm class bell rings. It’s not the all clear bell. It’s the bell that tells us that the period 3 class is over. The bell schedule kept going and made no respect for the lockdown.

“Can we leave?” a student asked.

Friday November 19, 2021

That morning when I woke up, I kept fighting back tears. I didn’t know how I would hold it together for my students for a full day of teaching.  I emailed my principal, expressing that I needed counseling. That required permission to leave one of my class periods.

 I don’t normally do this. 

Rather promptly, I receive a reply from her: 

“Yes. We have counseling services available.”

The e-mail read rather cold and short. I would have to coordinate this myself to make sure that my class was covered. Keeping order as usual was more important than giving people space to reflect and breathe, I guess. I arranged for my co-teacher to cover my last period of the day, where I could then seek counseling.  

That following morning was quieter than usual. Not as many students walked around the school yard.  The day had barely started and we all wanted it to be over. Plus, it was also the day before Thanksgiving break, so lockdown or no lockdown, there already was little motivation to work.

Was not showing up a sign of protest? Fear? Early vacation? All of the above?

Not knowing whether I’d make it home safely the day prior, I was mentally paralyzed in fight or flight. I was in no place to teach. In fact, I refused to teach in a place that didn’t feel safe, in a school that didn’t bother to rehearse any emergency drills at the beginning of the school year. School apparently was supposed to “proceed as normal” though.

8:30am. The first period bell rings. That impersonal bell tells me it’s supposed to be business as usual. As if nothing happened yesterday. As if none of my feelings–or ANYONE’s feelings— mattered.

Students file in my classroom, a little slower, a little more reluctant than usual.

I greet my students with a forced smile. 

I want to burst into tears. I want to be home where I feel safe. 

I stare into an empty sea of confused, frightened and bored faces.

“How many of you don’t want to be here right now?” I asked.

They all raised their hands. 

I raised my hand, too.The only thing I could manage that day was play movies in class. This is not what I normally do, but my mind was paralyzed. Students appreciated this, because they didn’t feel safe either. Their minds needed something relaxing and numbing.

I somehow got through most of the day. The movies were all a blur.

The last period of the day, I checked myself into the counseling at the school campus Wellness Center. A therapist who normally works with my students greeted me with a slightly surprised smile. 

We talk. I cry. It feels weird that we’re also co-workers. I’m not sure what I can share honestly. The best she can do is listen to some of my edited divulgences. She nodded her head and told me I had every right to feel this way. She didn’t seem shaken up by the lockdown. Maybe she was someone who just kept going during the lockdown. I didn’t ask.

I walk back to my classroom, where my sixth period is watching a  movie about racial justice. I dry the tears off my face. I didn’t see other teachers cry that day. Was I the only one who couldn’t hold it together?

As the winter wind wafts in the air, I hear a teacher’s voice bellow: “Okay, everyone open up to page 43, we will be taking our open-note quiz on Hitler’s propaganda methods. You have until the end of the period to finish.”

I shake my head. Some teachers continued to carry on as if there was no fight between 5 boys yesterday morning.

As if they didn’t punch him with a brass knuckle.

As if the victim wasn’t concussed with bruises.

As if the paramedics never came.

As if school safety wasn’t threatened.

Was this not worth discussing this process as a school community? Was it not worth reflecting on the lack of lockdown drills and rehearsals that should have legally been in place the first 2-3 weeks of the school year? There was no conversation on how school protocol could have been improved.

No one said anything.

3:13pm. The last bell is about to ring. The bell that grants me permission to exit campus to the safety of my own home.

Before stepping through the classroom door, I rub my eyes so that students don’t know I was crying.  Maybe if I went through more lockdowns, I wouldn’t be so shaken up.

Taylor Erickson has taught high school English for five years in various locations in California. She currently teaches in the Silicon Valley region, where she enjoys blogging, singing, long distance running and hiking.