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Journals and Covid-19: In Memory of My Father

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Quarantine Sketchbook Journal: Drawing of my teaching journal 

Drawing and photo by Susan Bernstein  May 6, 2020

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On the first day of Zoom remote teaching and learning for spring semester 2021, I introduced my students to the significance of journals. Left out of the introduction was that my 90-year-old father died in January from Covid-19. He was a first-generation American and a first-generation college student. My father was also translingual. His immigrant parents and grandparents, other relatives and people in his community spoke Russian and Yiddish, and my father communicated in those languages and in English when he was young. Like many of my own students, my father lived at home while he attended school. He loved history and he loved to read. I have inherited both of these loves from him. This blog post is written in memory of my father and all those lost this past year.

Although Zoom teaching and learning is some of the most challenging work that many of us have ever faced, I am not in favor of in-person classrooms at this historical moment. Medically vulnerable people catch the virus from people who are asymptomatic. I will never know how my father caught Covid-19, but I will always know that he died from it and how, at 90 years old, he was continuing to learn and grow as a human being. My father became part of the historic loss of life in this pandemic. As of this writing in mid-February, in the United States alone, more than 471,000 people have died from Covid-19, and BiPOC coping with historic and ongoing systemic racism suffer disproportionate impacts. 

In these circumstances, writing remains a significant challenge not only for me but also for my students. Words have not always worked to make sense of quarantine experiences, and with this in mind, I have turned to journaling in journals that have taken multiple forms. During lockdown, last spring, Montreal artist Sarah Mangle offered a daily (now weekly) email list with open-ended art prompts. Through these prompts, I practiced journaling in multiple forms. In addition to my long-standing handwritten teaching and learning journal, I now keep a sketchbook journal, and photo and video journals. While these forms of making are not new, in this last year engaging in multimedia practices has taken on a new significance.

For remote learning, this new significance means foregrounding journals from the very beginning of the semester. The following suggestions are adapted from my first-day teaching journal.

 

Journals provide a significant means for active, hands-on learning on your side of the Zoom screen. Speaking in practical terms for remote learning, the journals allow you to work at your own pace through the materials and will guide you through the major writing projects. Then, on Zoom, we can clarify confusion and work out ideas together as an online community.

As a teacher, I could add that journals play a significant role in your final course grade. At the same time, in my own work as a teacher and a writer, I continue to observe the larger role that journals play, beyond grades and general education requirements. Journals can take shape as words on a screen or on paper; journals also can also be photographs, collages, drawings, or any media that help us learn to see many sides of a story, and to find empathy with others. In other words, journals open space for creating and thinking outside the box. 

I’m writing this introduction the night before class begins, listening to music you sent me for the course playlist, and rereading students’ end-of-semester writing from Spring 2020. That semester, students wrote a lot in their journals. They wrote from lockdown at 2:30 or 2:45 am, they wrote from loss, and they wrote from remembrance. I will never forget those journals and the essays that grew out of the journals. As quarantine unfolded, history was unfolding as well. The students’ work has become part of that history.

Please use your journals wisely. You’ll be glad you did.

 

About the Author
I am a writer and teacher living in Queens, New York. My book is "Teaching Developmental Writing" 4e. Other recent publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity.