Dartmouth College (1989)
Stanford University (1997)
The coronavirus pandemic transformed every aspect of American life—none more so than education. When classes went online in the spring of 2020, many students and teachers bemoaned a lack of connection on Zoom and looked forward to returning to live, in-person classes in their neighborhood schools.
While I mostly agreed with that sentiment, I also began to see the potential of distance learning as a unique opportunity to bring together a diverse group of people who, because of geographic barriers, would never have a chance to meet otherwise. For me, the possibilities associated with remote instruction for student academic enrichment and teacher professional development led directly to the foundation of Literary Focus.
In the spring of 2020, I was about to begin my 30th year in education, the last two of which were with the Winter Sports School in Park City, Utah, where I served as the school's Director of Curriculum and Instruction in addition to teaching English. WSS is a public charter school that caters to dedicated winter athletes and runs on a reverse schedule, meaning that the academic year begins in mid-April and runs through mid-November to enable our student-athletes to compete full time during the winter months.
Like most schools, WSS shifted its instruction fully online when the pandemic began, conducting all of our classes on Zoom. Unlike most schools, however, WSS has a relatively itinerant student population. Even when school is in session during a normal year, our students often travel regularly to train and compete; it is not uncommon, for example, for students at WSS to miss several weeks of school on multiple occasions during a typical year.
While absences are always difficult to manage for students and teachers alike, they were much less of an issue during the pandemic. Since our classes were online, students were usually able to attend even when they were training or competing around the world. In fact, for many of our students, moving to remote instruction allowed them to pursue their training and competition schedules even more rigorously than before since they no longer had to worry about missing class. Even though most of us would have preferred to be on campus, there was a distinct advantage to being online in that we were suddenly able to bridge geographic divides in ways that were previously impossible.
In my 30 years of teaching, I have worked in seven different states and in a variety of educational settings. While all of these combined experiences represent a relatively diverse career, the truth is that each setting was fairly homogeneous with a school population that was defined and limited by its geographical location. I have often imagined what it would be like to bring together in a single classroom a mixture of students from the various locations where I have taught. I imagine what it would be like to combine the inner-city kids I taught in Springfield, Massachusetts, with the ranching kids from Norwood, Colorado; then I imagine adding the Catholic school kids in Portland, Oregon, with the private school kids on Maui, Hawaii, and the skiers from Park City, Utah. I imagine the lively discussions we would have with the various backgrounds and experiences represented in that room!
While it is extremely important to continue building relationships in the communities where we live, I believe it is just as important for us to get out of our neighborhoods to gain new perspectives and share ideas with people who are different from ourselves. As teachers, we are just as limited geographically as our students. Like most in the profession, I feel like I have steadily improved my teaching over 30 years primarily through trial and error. One of the sad realities of the American educational system is that teachers rarely are provided time to collaborate and, thus, we are forced to work in relative isolation from one another. While we might gather for weekly or monthly department meetings, we usually spend that time going over logistical issues or school-related concerns rather than addressing in any profound way, at least in my experience, the challenges of creating engaging curriculum and effective instruction for our students.
One of the goals for Literary Focus is not just to bring together a diverse group of motivated students for our enrichment classes, but to bring together a diverse group of dedicated teachers to create a vibrant, engaged online community where teachers can share their thoughts and ideas with fellow professionals from different backgrounds and from a wide variety of educational settings. With an appreciation of great literature as our common bond, hopefully we will use this site—both students and teachers alike—to bridge those geographical divides in order to build an online community where we learn as much as possible from each other's experiences.
Thank you for your interest in Literary Focus, and I hope you will join us!