“So, what’s going on in the world?” I asked. “Anything you want to talk about?”
I had a sense of where today’s class would go after one student walked in and — instead of his usual fist bump — he offered me an elbow bump, to which we simultaneously said, “Corona.”
I’ve started my English class like this for most of my 20 years in the high school classroom, the majority of which I’ve spent with seniors in a dual-credit class. As an instructional coach, I encourage teachers to use a class warm-up activity, a “Do Now,” to quote Doug Lemov’s “Teach Like a Champion” book. My own Do Now isn’t a lesson about finding appropriate places for commas; mine is just getting a pulse for what national and global stories have caught my students’ eyes and ears.
I’ve seen a half-dozen raised hands each day this week, and each student wanted to talk about the coronavirus, so I worked my way around the room. Most discussions began with similar phrases: “Did you hear about …,” “I read yesterday that …,” or “I saw on Twitter, and I don’t know if it’s true, but …”
As we talked, I was reminded of the hope that I think we — Boomers, Gen Xers, even Millennials — need to have in Gen Z. They’re curious, they’re passionate, they’re concerned, they’re seeking input like Johnny 5 in the movie “Short Circuit.”
Of course, my students have wanted to know if we’ll have school next week, but they’ve also brought up the hypocrisy of keeping schools in session: “Why are they banning gatherings of 250 people when we have a school over 3,000?” “Why aren’t we all getting tested if we want to track this thing?”
I try not to endorse any politics with the students, but we talk politics all the time because — let’s face it — it’s news. We talked about President Trump’s speech about the coronavirus, especially in light of our study earlier this year of the speech President George W. Bush made in the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks. Did they feel more comforted? Did they feel more afraid? What was the tone? Or as we often say in this rhetoric class: What did they say, how did they say it, was it successful?
Among my students are athletes whose seasons have just been canceled, and students in the musical who know it may not be safe to gather 600 people to watch them perform on Sunday, but — like our basketball players — don’t want to be forced to abandon what they’ve worked so hard toward, especially when they don’t necessarily have the confidence in their leaders, both locally and nationally.
During the course of this school year, my students have opened class discussions talking about topics such as fires in the Brazilian rainforest, presidential debates, the need for guns or the need to regulate them to prevent mass shootings, and so much more. Over the years, I’ve modified my belief in what I’m even doing in the classroom, what my goal is. The goal of these class openers is this: Develop a generation of informed citizens who can communicate their opinions as they work for change.
I believe Gen Z will meet this moment. After all, these are the young people who marched out of their classes after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida; these are the young people who asked me whom to speak with about the changes in school lunch nutritional requirements; these are the young people who were excited when our school librarians came in and registered them to vote.
There’s still so much we don’t know about the current outbreak, such as if we have enough supplies should we need to stay indoors, or if all of our students on free- and reduced-price lunch will get fed if we’re off school for an extended time. We still don’t know if we are overreacting or underreacting.
So we’ve been following these kindergarten rules from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention, and doing our best: We’ve been coughing into our elbows, washing our hands while singing the ABC’s (or the chorus to Toto’s “Africa,” which also lasts 20 seconds), and respecting each other’s personal space.
But as these children are 17 and not 7, they want more answers. They don’t want to just follow the directions and guidelines imposed on them; they want to know if those making the decisions have their best interests — their survival — in mind, or if the adults in their lives are just making it up as they go and are masking the same fears they have.
On Friday afternoon, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered all schools in our state to close by Tuesday and to stay shuttered until at least March 30. When we’re back in class, I’m guessing we’ll keep on bumping elbows, and washing our hands while singing our ABCs. And until we have more and better answers, I know what we’ll be talking about each day when I ask them, “What’s going on in the world? What’s on your mind?”
Brian Newman has been teaching English at Joliet West High School in Joliet, Illinois, for 20 years. He holds a master’s degree in English from Elmhurst University.