Learning to Teach or Teaching to Learn: How Stuyvesant Teachers Transitioned

Stuyvesant teachers have been finding ingenious ways to compensate for the negative effects of remote learning and provide their students with the absolute best learning experience possible.

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By Saadat Rafin

Papers rustle, backpacks are zipped shut, the bell rings, and in 30 seconds, over 3,000 Stuyvesant students flood the halls. They rush to their next class, concerned their lateness might hurt their grade or earn them a nasty look from an already stressed teacher—nine times a day, five days a week, nine months a year. It’s an oh-so-familiar routine at our esteemed school. But the Stuyvesant we know and love (or hate) is no longer. With one in four Americans jobless due to COVID-19, the global economy spiraling downward faster than you can say “cure,” and the legally imposed social isolation of billions of people around the world, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on our country. The world has been turned upside down overnight, forced to cope with a global pandemic, and look for innovative ways to address the issues it brings. When it comes to education, teachers and students alike have faced dozens of issues: technological, social, and everything in between. For the Stuyvesant faculty, adjusting to remote learning has posed a huge challenge, and teachers were forced to quickly discover how to effectively regulate a student’s learning through the Internet and ensure that the quality of education is maintained while keeping in mind that students may be personally affected by the virus. Some Stuyvesant teachers have been finding ingenious ways to compensate for the negative effects of remote learning and provide their students with the absolute best learning experience possible

English teacher Lauren Stuzin believes that remote learning has only highlighted the pressing need for “improved educational technology” and the importance of adaptability to ensure a smooth transition to online learning. They went on to emphasize the directness and “less is more” approach that quarantine demands as well as the alternatives to the engaging and intellectually stimulating atmosphere that in-class learning provides. They further maintained the idea that recreating the “energetic Stuy learning atmosphere” present during in-class learning is still a daunting task, and online learning is simply not the same.

History teacher David Hanna echoed Stuzin’s beliefs on remote learning and preference for an in-class learning model: “Something essential is lost that I’m not able to effectively articulate, but that I feel instinctively. I think students feel it too,” he said. With students forced to attend school online and communicate virtually, teaching effectively becomes exponentially more difficult, and teachers have struggled to adapt to new technology and a completely changed learning model—a completely unprecedented change to the education curriculum.

Like Stuzin and Hanna, language teacher Jia Zhou has also struggled to transition to online learning. Regarding tests and assessments, Zhou specifically noted that she “didn’t give any formal assessment[s] during the remote learning” because she felt it was not a fair way to assess students. Instead, she reorganized her curriculum to incorporate projects and more straightforward homework as an alternative.

Math teacher Andrea Fenyves also remarked on the difficulty of finding an effective way to test her students, stating, “Testing depends on the individual students' Internet connections, [and] proctoring is not available, so cheating is easier.” Struggling to combat technological issues, the circumstances of all their students, and the huge division between students and teachers that online learning creates, teachers have had to adapt their teaching styles to best meet their students’ needs.

COVID-19 has also transformed one of the most vital parts of the educational system: testing. The College Board, responsible for AP testing, SAT testing, and SAT Subject Tests, has had its fair share of difficulties created by COVID-19. Shortened and modified prompts, postponed testing, and revised test formats have been a few of the implemented solutions, but administering an exam online around the world to millions of students has not been easy, and the College Board has faced a great deal of criticism.

Among their critics is Zhou, who shed light on the difficulties of fairly administering a test online: “I don’t teach [any] AP [courses], but I heard many technical problems occurred during the test. It’s definitely not fair for the students who put so much time and effort [into] the AP class,” she commented.

Stuzin also remarked on the unfortunate rumors surrounding AP testing and the newly modified tests, stating that they had heard nothing too positive. However, they did mention that the comfort of online testing and the shortened exams could have possibly been beneficial for students, especially those experiencing the effects of COVID-19: “I did hear that perhaps it was nice to sit for a 45-minute exam rather than a 3-hour one and that perhaps it was nice to take an AP in pajamas,” they said.

Hanna echoed some of Stuzin’s semi-positive feelings about the AP exams, stating that he felt “the College Board did the best they could, given the circumstances.” Though the various document-based question (DBQ) prompts given on history exams were a huge subject of contention for both test takers and teachers alike, Mr. Hanna feels they were relatively balanced, explaining, “I felt the various DBQ topics were a fair representation of the curriculum.”

In trying times like these, a little lighthearted fun is always welcome, and our teachers have had their fair share of fond memories. In Stuzin’s English class, literary TikToks, the recreation of the English classroom in Minecraft, and new Minutes gifts have been just a few of the creative ways students have been making lessons more fun. Fenyves also had other fun stories to share about online learning: when one of her students accidentally mistook her cat for a bird during online learning, it became a class joke. The following week during class, the same student announced “How cute, the cat is meowing,” and another student instantly responded, “No, it was the bird.”

Outside of online learning, Stuzin described how, though they still miss their students, quarantine has offered more free time to take up new hobbies like walking their cat and learning how to use TikTok. History teacher Rebecca Firdman has also used quarantine as an opportunity to experiment with new hobbies. She opened up about her new-found dedication to making her very own bread: “I baked bread before quarantine, but since I was home, I committed to making my mom’s challah recipe,” she described. “It took hours, but the challah came out amazing.” Though social isolation has been difficult and stressful, it has provided increased free time that can be used to explore hobbies and polish cooking skills.

Though we have stayed strong and resilient so far, it is easy to feel lost in self-isolation. To Stuyvesant students and all others experiencing the negative effects of quarantine, Stuyvesant teachers offered wise words of advice to encourage us through the pandemic. Stuzin stated, “If you got up today and checked in with yourself, you are strong. […] You are amazing, and you are not alone.”

Firdman elaborated, “As my grandparents used to say, ‘this too shall pass’ […] Remember that with all your hard work, perseverance, and dedication to learning throughout this period, you guys are embodying what it means to be a Stuyvesant student.”