Being a teacher during COVID (and fighting my way through it)

By Mely Martinez

I must confess, when I first read the news that our school was shutting down due to COVID and that we were all to learn the ins and outs of Google Classroom, Loom, and the likes, my first thought was: may I be exempt? I teach Spanish at a small private school, and since my class is just an elective, surely they could do without it…right? The answer was no, of course. All elective teachers were required to teach their courses as regular.

This was my main reason for resisting to teach an elective during COVID: do kids really need it? I know why electives are important. They’re an essential way to broaden a child’s horizon and provide them with a well-rounded education. But during a pandemic? Pandemic means (or should mean, anyway) going back to basics. Keep your essentials, forget the rest. Learning a second language hardly seems like an essential during a global emergency. Not forgetting how to add and multiply? Yes. Reading? Definitely. Conjugating Spanish verbs? Not so much.

I fought long and hard to convince my principal that I was not an essential worker during this pandemic. But alas, my objection was in vain. I was expected to pick up my textbooks from school, learn how to upload worksheets, record myself teaching, and be available to answer students’ questions at least three times a week. I negotiated, again. I would teach upper-grade levels what they were supposed to learn from the textbook without using a textbook, and I would review everything we had already learned in lower grade levels so that language acquisition would not be lost, but I would not teach any new concepts or vocabulary. I would not quiz or test. My requests were granted (mainly because my supervisors had so much to take care of, they probably skimmed through my long texts and replied “okay” without much thought).

So I started planning my lessons with a three-step approach in mind: make it meaningful, make it relevant, make it fun. I had just come back from a three-week vacation in Mexico and one of my favorite moments was visiting La Casa Azul (Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s house during the 1940s). It was such a breath of fresh air to be in that very special space – the big windows throughout the house, the light that came in, the gardens, the works of art, and Frida’s bed with a mirror hanging over it. She had it installed there strategically, to paint herself and her musings over and over again during the many times she laid in bed, sick and unable to move. Then I had an idea: if anyone knew how to handle confinement gracefully (and make the most of it), it was Frida.

For the next couple of days, I introduced my students to Frida with an interactive slide show titled, “The wonderful life of Frida Kahlo.” I used gifs, cool fonts, and all the awesome Frida Kahlo pictures I could find. I had one slide with the vocabulary they should become familiar with. The rest was a short biography in Spanish, space for them to summarize what they had learned, an opportunity for them to look for a Frida quote that spoke to them, and an introduction to her art. The quotes the kids found filled me with joy and tears. They wrote things like: “Pies, para que te quiero, si tengo alas para volar” and “At the end, we can endure so much more than we think we can.” In the comments sections, they told me how much Frida’s life inspired them: her willingness to press on despite her sickness; her ability to make art under such harsh circumstances; her determination, and her love for life.

Inspired by their positive response to Frida’s lesson, I decided to teach Frida for the rest of our confinement. So far, I have not run out of things to learn and do with them. I’ve dressed up like Frida for almost everyone of our Zoom meetings (a great hit). We’ve made self-portraits, Frida- style, to tell about the things we love to observe, paint, and feel (and we learned how to conjugate pintar, amar, and observar – a major win). We’ve explored Frida’s house together through pictures and videos (which allowed us to build vocabulary about household items, colors, and clothing). And we’ve taken a virtual tour of Frida’s house for kids, which I turned into a scavenger hunt to informally test their vocabulary learning.

I can’t write enough about how much fun we’ve had and how much we have learned together during this pandemic. Maybe we haven’t focused as much on grammar and vocabulary acquisition, but we definitely learned about a person whose life inspired us to look at our present circumstances through a different lens. That alone, I think, was worth changing my curriculum around and fighting every single one of my supervisors for what I knew was right: giving our children the tools they needed to heal and grow, rather than expecting them to function and perform as normal while pretending there was no crisis going on. For this, I am grateful: for Frida, for art, and for our ability to create and connect with our students at a time when it was crucial to do so.

Mely Martinez writes about motherhood, bilingualism, and activism. She is based in Houston where she is raising two bilingual kids and teaches Spanish at a local school. Find her on Instagram @melyiswritingagain.

Want to take a virtual tour of Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul with your kids? Download Mely’s Casa Azul Scavenger Hunt below and answer the questions as you tour the house.