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Empathy Helped This Kansas City Student Teacher Build Community In His Online Classroom

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Khalil Jones had been teaching English Language Arts to his East High School students from his bedroom in Kansas City. He has since returned to in-class teaching.

Khalil Jones is in his final semester at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and student teaching at East High School in the Kansas City Public Schools.

With support from the Walton Family Foundation, KCUR has asked student teachers in the Kansas City area to write about their experiences learning how to teach during a pandemic. We'll be running their stories as a series of teacher diaries in the coming weeks.

Next time I see COVID, I’m gonna punch him in the face. I’m serious. Well, half serious. I do not condone violence, and all of us should place an emphasis on discussion and understanding our enemies. But man, I really hate that guy.

COVID-19, in all of its carnage, has impacted my educational and teaching journey in three distinct but powerful ways: engagement in the classroom, creativity for lesson plans and a renewed understanding for the home situations of my students. For me, education is that thin line between boredom and sanity. I can tell you what I’ve seen as a student teacher in the Kansas City Public Schools

With the coronavirus forcing school districts to transition fully to virtual learning, the classroom environment has dramatically changed to unfamiliar territory. Instead of roaming around a classroom full of backpacks and pencil sharpeners, I now reside behind a screen, as do my students. This transition has made it easier for students to disengage from class and distract themselves with Netflix and eyelid gazing. As their teacher, I want to make sure they’re actively learning — and I’m not wasting their time.

To counter this, my lesson plans have incorporated more classroom discussions where each student gets a chance to share and participate in class. Students, unbeknownst to them, have entered a space where, more than ever, they are responsible for their own learning. It is up to them to come to class, engage — and do the work. For some, this is a riveting experience. For others, it’s a lot more than they can handle. By encouraging students to engage in the class and take ownership of their learning, teachers can reassure students that even from a distance, they’re there for them.

Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Khalil Jones' computer screen is reflected in his glasses in his bedroom where he had been teaching English Language Arts until recently. He has since returned to the classroom.

With students having more wiggle room for distractions, this pandemic has made it an imperative that lessons and assignments are engaging and appealing to students’ innate interests. When making lesson plans, the normal teaching strategies like partner work, moving around the classroom and checking in on each student individually are useless in this new climate. This transition has put an emphasis on creativity for teachers in terms of designing engaging lessons. For me, this includes making a class Google Doc where all the students can participate in writing together, and I can also gauge and observe everyone at once.

Little tricks like this have made my educational and teaching career a bit easier despite the circumstances and hiccups surrounding our situations. And even today, I constantly find myself searching for new and different ways to ensure my students stay interested.

Despite all of this, something to keep in mind is that these students, just like me, are affected by COVID-19 in a unique way. I’m a student, just like my students, so I understand how difficult it is to complete classwork and how easy it is to fall behind in your duties. Additionally, I understand that they’re thinking about a lot more right now than their grammar skills. It’s because of this that I incorporate real-life situations into my lesson plans. I stress to my students that what they’re learning can be used outside of the classroom.

This includes teaching students about empathy (something the world needs as a whole), and how to be considerate of others as we struggle together. For the students, providing them skills necessary to function in our society is more important than it’s ever been. We are in a situation where students can now make the choice to tune into class — or to tune us out. We must respect this decision and simply ensure that whatever time we are granted is spent wisely and productively.

For me, this is how COVID has impacted my educational journey. I’m just a guy who loves to teach, and hopefully my words will give you an insight into school right now. We all have to take this thing as best we can, day by day.

Khalil Jones is in his final semester at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and student teaching at East High School. After graduation, Khalil will teach at a high school within the inner Kansas City area. Khalil’s goal is to teach students abroad and learn about new cultures as he teaches them new words.
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