Ryan Jones, a world history teacher at Watsonville High School in Santa Cruz County, and a teacher leader with the History and Civics Project at UC Santa Cruz, last taught his students in person more than two months ago. They had just started a unit about the Holocaust, which Jones has long used “to teach the hierarchy of needs and what happens when you dehumanize someone and take away those parts of the triangle that make us human.” As Jones recently explained, “this example became real for all of us pretty quick. All the sudden we were focused on making sure we had enough food and water, and a safe place to be where we could protect our health—survival mode.” Ever since March, when shelter in place orders upended his students’ sense of the world, Jones has worked tirelessly to continue his instruction, while focusing first and foremost on the human needs of his students.
Fortunate to work in a school district that values his expertise and autonomy in constructing his own curriculum, Jones explained that when distance learning started, his school directed teachers to spend about forty minutes of online instruction per class, per day. What that instruction looked like was open ended. Jones immediately recognized that focusing on the historical record disconnected from the urgency of the pandemic and trauma would be a disservice to his students. As he recently explained to me, “I have students who live in crowded homes, some live in toxic homes, many have loved ones they are worried about, many have parents out of work, some of them are working full time to help bridge the financial gap and are doing what they can for a few hours before they fall asleep.” It would be irresponsible to pretend that this reality should not shape a history teacher’s approach to instruction. Jones carefully coveys sympathy to his students by emphasizing the importance of their self-care and emotional health.
He likened the urgency with which he wants to support his students to the scene in the movie Titanic where the ship begins to sink. For Jones, the pandemic is the ship “literally sinking, and people are scrambling to get on lifeboats, and this group comes out and starts playing music—trying to create a soothing but very false and unhelpful sense of normalcy. I think that us trying to continue on as normal with our courses and content is like those musicians playing the violin on a sinking ship. I would rather be the guy passing out lifejackets and helping people get into the lifeboat.” Jones has been passing out lifejackets to his students through social media posts, being accessible at all hours of the day by phone and email, and through distance instruction. Based on their social media responses (one student remarked: “i literally started questioning everything + my existence last night until 4 am. thank you for this jones !”), his students are grabbing hold of his lifejackets and eager to seize opportunities to connect with their teacher and mentor. A challenge for Jones is being there for his students who seem to do their school work between 8 pm and midnight, maintain his daytime distance teaching responsibilities, and strive for some kind of work-life balance.
At the beginning of the 2019 school year, Jones had designed a dynamic tenth-grade world history course website that emphasized the importance of inquiry, historical thinking, disciplinary skills, and civic engagement. Jones works with the UC Santa Cruz History and Civics Project as a teacher leader who has designed terrific annotation strategies, primary-source based lessons, and model curriculum. His class website alone could have served as the platform for his distance learning instruction. But Jones was quick to point out that this was insufficient for meet his students’ needs right now. This spring has led Jones to encourage the kinds of historical journaling projects that other history teachers have adopted. As this school year draws to a close, Jones reflected, “I’m still teaching skills, just not the ones I thought I would teach at the beginning of the year.” Going into the summer at a time with so much uncertainty for what next year holds, Jones’ message about meeting his students where they are, and being prepared to switch gears and goals reflects the innumerable hours that have gone into distance teaching.