An open letter to my sons and students

I’ve always been a sentimental sort, in touch with my feelings, easily manipulated by a melancholy chord progression, willing to shed a tear for a cartoon robot or a superhero dissipating into CGI nothingness . But this is different.

I am grieving.

Editor’s Note: While this blog serves as my professional digital portfolio and archive, documenting and preserving my words and ideas in my role as a high school librarian and lifelong educator, it is also highly personal, and I have written essays in the past addressing issues such as nepotism, inequality, poverty, identity, among others. This is one of those “other’ posts. My sons are 15 and 20 years old, my students all in high school.

I have a few thoughts I need to share with you. It’s almost three in the morning and I can’t sleep, again. Just about every day nowadays, I break down and have a cry. Usually it’s brought on by another news story about someone I don’t know, dying overnight in the fight with this menace we are all forced to know now. Other times, my tears are flowing before I’m even sure what I am crying about. They just roll down my cheeks as I drink my coffee, scrolling through the news, reading tweets and memes connecting death and incompetence, ruin and irony, loss and lying.

You know me. I’ve always been a sentimental sort, in touch with my feelings, easily manipulated by a melancholy chord progression, willing to shed a tear for a cartoon robot or a superhero dissipating into CGI nothingness . But this is different.

I am grieving. Like so many people. I am not just sad, but in real deep grief.

And not just because of the deaths brought on by the pandemic, which would be cause enough. I am grieving because some days it does feel like we are all losing at everything. Gone is our way of life, our every days, our sense of normalcy. We are losing money, jobs, houses, futures. But most of all, I am grieving because I see you grieving. I see you mourning and helpless. I hear your questions and feel your frustrations. I see you sinking into depression, beginning to believe that nothing will ever be good again.  

This sense of panic that you feel from this pandemic came early, like a jump shock in a horror movie. Before we knew what was happening, we learned that the monster was already in our home. And while we couldn’t see it, it was moving among us, stealthily. This monster had a name and an identity, but it was also something new, and therefore, unknown. Worse than that, how we (the adults) handled it, especially in our country, made you feel lost and confused. We kept giving you conflicting information about the symptoms, how contagious it was, how deadly it was, whether or not we should wear masks or gloves.

And now we’ve been telling you for a month and a half that the world has shut down. I can see that you feel like this will never end, like we are losing control of the situation. But I am here to tell you that this is not the case.  I’m going to tell you something adults hardly ever admit to kids or themselves. The truth is, we lose control of the situation all of the time. In big ways and in small. We get sick, we get lost, we lose track of time. But we’re a curious and clever bunch. We find our way through things, we make sense of the chaos, and eventually, we find our way home … or else we make a new one wherever we land. We conquered the planet in this manner, and you will make it through this trial if you remember that.

I have five decades of conscious experience at my disposal to sift through to try and make sense of this crisis. In my lifetime, I have had personal medical setbacks, watched loved ones suffer through Alzheimer’s, AIDS, cancer and all those other ungodly maladies that come for us. I’ve lost family and friends to violence, drug addiction and mental illness. And of course, most recently, lost my beloved mother, to the genetic specter known as aneurysms, which has claimed several family members. Loss is inevitable. But you cannot let that emptiness fester. You must find a new seed to plant, work the barren ground left behind. 

One thing that has given me hope, is how we have responded to this crisis. Not our government, but the people. Us. You and me. Your friends and mine. Our family. In the face of this contagion, we have ceased to operate in the ways we used to, so that we can fight off this invisible monster which threatens our most valuable resource which, of course, is each other. The whole world is willing to sacrifice everything, it seems … for each other. If I have learned anything about life and living, it is that as long as we have each other, we shouldn’t give up hope.

Finally, I would like to remind you that it is okay to cry, to grieve, to mourn. Your pain is real, your loss is great. We are still unsure about how we go forward, still not sure how to beat the monster or how many more of us it will take with it. We don’t know. That’s the other thing that adults rarely admit to kids or themselves. We just don’t know.

But I promise you, something else will grow in this empty space we all feel. Let us plant wisely, and tend to our gardens.  

I love you.

P.S. In the age of social media, we often get requests on another platform (FB, in case you must know) to share information that could help others in need. Below is the text and link of one such viral campaign.

Could 2 friends or family members just copy and repost? I am trying to demonstrate that someone is always listening. Times like this are extremely hard for people with depression.

#SuicideAwareness
1-800-273-8255

Thank you for stopping by.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2020. All rights reserved

 

 

 

Recommended Reading, Disaster Edition

Good day to you. So, here we are still in isolation. I hope that wherever you are in the world, you are safe and well, and that you have at least some good company available to you. For me, these days in isolation have allowed me to catch up on one of my favorite activities: long form reading.

During this time of crisis, I have been watching the news to try and get information regarding the pandemic. Of course, I understand that this novel virus presents some serious challenges to the doctors in the field and to the journalists trying to make sense of the information as it rolls in. One of the things I hate hearing from our leaders though, is the idea that no one could have seen this coming. That notion is simply not true. In fact, all three of the books I recommend reading deal with the idea of natural disasters and the impacts they have had on human history. Needless to say, every writer is quick to point out that what has happened in the past, may reoccur in the future, if we don’t pay attention.

Plagues and people, by William McNeil. Published way back in 1976, this book is still worthy of attention as McNeil chronicles the impact of plagues many of us only thought of fleetingly in history class. In fact, this book remains so relevant to today’s situation, that just two weeks ago an article in History News Network recounted how McNeil had warned that a “mutated virus” could cause a future pandemic. Considered by many to be among the first historians to fully understand the impact that diseases had on the course of human events,  McNeil revisits the black plagues of 13th and 14th century Europe, typhoid in China and smallpox in the Americas, to demonstrate the back and forth relationship between us and our tiny invaders. By now, other writers have acknowledged and chronicled the influence of natural forces on human history, but it was this book that first introduced a general reading audience to such a perspective. Interestingly enough, McNeil added another chapter in the 1980’s that addressed the advent of the AIDS epidemic, when there were still many more questions than answers. Where this book leaves off, our next one picks up almost perfectly, as if it were a sequel.

Deadliest Enemy: our war against killer germs, by Michael Osterholm, PhD and Mark Olshaker. This fascinating book, as stated above, picks up where Plagues and People leaves off, with the first cases of a new mysterious disease afflicting otherwise healthy young men. Having lived through the advent and spread of the AIDS epidemic, I can tell you that there were tons of misinformation circling back then. All of it was fueled by fear, ignorance and prejudice, lessons we still have not learned. One of the other cases covered in this books is the SARS outbreak of 2009. Although this is a work of nonfiction, much of it reads like a suspense novel, as we follow the outbreaks as reported in the news first, and trace them backwards to discover where they originated. Perhaps the most dire warning that comes from this book is the idea that we will continue to face pandemics in the future as we draw closer to ecosystems that have up until this point in history been virtually isolated from human populations.

After reading the book, I discovered a video lecture posted in 2017 from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health featuring Michael Osterholm, one of the authors of the book. It is over an hour long, but is a sobering and informative discussion about the future of pandemics … a future we are living through because “no one could have seen this coming”.

 

The Big Ones: how natural disasters have shaped us (and what we can do about them), by Dr. Lucy Jones. Unlike the other books which focused on diseases and their impact on people, this book examines how natural disasters (volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and the like) have altered the course of human history. Dr. Jones revisits many famous disasters, from Pompeii in 79 AD all the way to the Great Japanese earthquake of 2011. Besides recounting the disastrous effects that these events had on people, Dr. Jones also talks about the lessons that were learned from each disaster. She is also quick to point out, however, that even when we are prepared for the worst, nature’s power for destruction is exponential and often incalculable beforehand.

You might be asking, “why would I want to read about such disasters while we are going through something terrible?” The truth is I had these books on my short reading list before any of this started. In retrospect, however, I’ve realized that reading these kinds of books has encouraged me in a few ways. For starters, disasters of any kind always call forth the best in some of us. Anytime something bad is happening, all you have to do is look around to notice that there are others trying to clean up the mess. Heroes are born from hardships. Reading about these disasters and deadly epidemics also reminds me how fragile life really is, as cliché as that observation seems. We get so caught up in our routines, our daily habits that they become meaningless. We forget how much work it actually takes to bring something as simple as a steaming cup of coffee into existence. Until something knocks us out of our “normal”, we are blind to how fortunate we actually are.

Lastly, I’d like to make one final observation. Reading about how many ways the universe conspires against us to end our fragile little lives, it really saddens me to contemplate how much of our existence, how much of our time and energy we use to organize ourselves against each other. As smart and ingenious as we are, both as individuals and collectively, you would think that by now in history, we would at least agree that life is so short and precious, that violence between us is never acceptable.

Stay safe. Be well. Read more.

Thank you for stopping by.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2020. All rights reserved

Free Databases

Welcome to another week of working from home. As you already know by now, most of the Internet, while fun and entertaining, is not meant for use in school. Luckily, many creators of educational materials and services are using this COVID shutdown as an opportunity to get their wares into our hands … many times for free. Below you will find links to some of these, along with descriptions mostly lifted from their sites

Gale Cengage is one of the providers for the Massachusetts statewide databases, and for the time being, they are also offering free access to the following resources that are not usually available to us without a subscription. These databases are not set up the same way as our Gale databases. If you get asked for a password, use “open” (no quotes).

  • Miss Humblebee’s Academy – an interactive kindergarten-readiness program that introduces children ages three to six to key concepts in math, science, social studies, language and literacy, art, and music. It’s as challenging as it is fun!
  • Gale In Context: High School – supports student papers, projects, and presentations while empowering the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills with content aligned to national and state curriculum standards.
  •  Online Health Information toolkit – authoritative information on the full range of health-related issues including high quality digital content and interactive 3D models.

Another trusted and credible resource familiar to many educators and students is ABC-CLIO. To help support virtual learning, they will be providing open access for middle and high school students. The student site features learning resources such as video lessons, quizzes, inquiry activities, and more all aligned to your class assignments for spring topics in American History, American Government, and World History. These will be free from now until June 30, 2020. https://www.abc-clio.com/students/

If you like what you see at these free databases and are interested in exploring more of ABC-CLIO’s resources, I have signed up for a free month educator preview that expires on May 7, 2020. You can use the following credentials to get in and explore.

Username: haverhillhighschool-student
Password: mfxmzpq

Thank you for stopping by and keep on learning.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2020. All rights reserved

 

 

Distance Learning Resources

While the sudden move to online education has caught much of the nation by surprise, the truth is that we have been slowly moving in that direction for at least half a century. In a past post, I wrote about a 1966 report called Learning by Television, which summarized its findings as, “Whether measured by the numbers of students affected, or by the quality of the product, or by the advancement of learning, televised teaching is still in a rudimentary stage of development”.

Of course, that was before the advent of home computers, the internet, broadband and so many other technological advances that have come into existence over the last fifty years. At first, schools were slow to adopt any of these tools into the classrooms, but eventually the technology became so ubiquitous (and user friendly) that schools were forced to adapt to the sweeping cultural changes. Whether we liked it or not, cell phones and wireless technology made it possible for everyone to carry with them their own personal entertainment/ communications systems in their pockets.

This was a double-edged sword, of course, given human nature. Sure, this new technology made it possible to communicate instantly with anyone on the planet, listen to the brightest minds lecture on their fields of expertise, learn independently via videos and gather reliable information from the most respected and reputable think tanks on the planet. It also ushered in the era of phone apps, cat videos, six second Vines, Memes, emojis, a Presidential Twitter account and the resurgence of flat earthers … all contributions of dubious worth.

I write all this to say, the technology is not what matters, but how we use it. Especially during our time in quarantine, it will be up to each of us as individuals to decide what we do with the time we spend in front of our screens. For my fellow educators, I hope that you are not drowning, trying to reinvent the wheel. I recommend that you use the resources that are already available online to help you shore up your lessons.

With that in mind, here then are three places you can go for help and/or ideas, along with descriptions lifted straight from their “About” pages:

  • What Works Clearinghouse: The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) reviews the existing research on different programsproductspractices, and policiesin education. Our goal is to provide educators with the information they need to make evidence-based decisions. We focus on the results from high-quality research to answer the question “What works in education?
  • Annenberg Learner Foundation: As part of its mission to advance excellent teaching in American schools, Annenberg Learner funds and distributes educational video programs – with coordinated online and print materials – for the professional development of K-12 teachers. Many programs are also intended for students in the classroom and viewers at home, with videos that exemplify excellent teaching.
  • PBS Learning Media: is your destination for direct access to thousands of classroom-ready, curriculum-targeted digital resources. … Resources are aligned to Common Core and national standards and include videos and interactives, as well as audio, documents, and in-depth lesson plans.

Good luck finding useful resources and thank you for stopping by. Stay safe.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2020. All rights reserved