Like Berkeley High School (BHS), the three Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) middle schools have started the school year completely online. Juliana Jones, a math teacher at Longfellow Middle School, said that this is “far from ideal for all kids to learn,” but “is all we have right now.” Classes have been conducted over Zoom, with teachers using online resources such as Google Classroom and Desmos as tools with which to teach their students. BUSD middle schools hope to find new ways to engage with students during these unprecedented times.
Lily Collins, a seventh grader at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School (MLK), said she feels she has “gotten a lot out of distance learning,” but that one of the hardest parts is “not being able to see people in person and connect with them.” Jones echoed this sentiment and said that she has “great concerns about student engagement.” She added that it is hard to even tell if students are engaged because, “online, if a kid’s screen is black — and they don’t respond — they very well could have left the room or fallen asleep.”
Jones also made it clear that distance learning has been very difficult for teachers — especially with different hours and new strategies to learn — and describes it as “absolutely overwhelming.” She said, “Teacher’s experiences need to be improved. This is not sustainable for many of us.” Collins was very appreciative of the support her teachers have provided, saying that one of the bright spots of this year has been how teachers are “being very personable, and sharing experiences, and just including everyone.”
Despite the obstacles that this online method of education has posed schools, students, and teachers, everyone found new ways to be connected. Jones mentioned that she is able to foster a sense of community in her virtual classroom by celebrating student birthdays. She said, “We send lots of wishes in the chat and the birthday person tells us what they did, what they ate, and if they got any special presents.”
Longfellow plans to celebrate Dia De Los Muertos with a “remembrance space” that will open on October 24. Families can drop off any items they would like to have included and the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) will assemble the collaborative altar on the west side of the school.
Schools are attempting to provide many of the same opportunities as they would during a normal school year. Jones said that Longfellow has a tutoring program with “college students who support students.” The Willard Middle School library has set up a system for students to pick up library books at the curb every Wednesday from 3:30 PM to 5 PM. Their after school program has virtual groups for students to participate in that range from coding and biking clubs to, in Jones’ words, a “fast feet agility class.”
The MLK Edible Schoolyard program has engaged with students by teaching classes and providing physical and online resources with which to garden and cook at home. The Edible Schoolyard staff has put together kits of materials to garden with, as well as ingredients for recipes that have come from the garden. Students can come by and pick them up to participate in the online classes.
Jason Uribe, a garden teacher at MLK, mentioned that, “the kitchen was doing a cookie recipe, and so families who needed ingredients came by and got ingredients for that.” Uribe added, “Next week they’re doing something around the three sisters tacos,” referring to a recipe taught in the kitchen that coincides with the seventh graders’ humanities studies around the Maya, Aztec, and Inca civilizations. These “family engagement nights” are held over zoom and Uribe estimated the first of these classes had “70-75 families who participated.”
In addition, the edible schoolyard staff has been teaching the sixth grade nutrition class, What’s on Your Plate, and plans to host online sessions for the afterschool program in coming weeks. Looking ahead, students and their families may be able to return to the garden soon, as Uribe said that he has been in communication with MLK Principal Janet Levenson “to see if we could actually offer time slots for families to come and visit the garden.”
The program has also been giving back to the community by sending food to the Berkeley Food Network, an organization that gave out 462,000 meals in 2019. Uribe said that the garden has “grown more food than we’ve ever grown in a particular year,” and “most of that food is going to the Berkeley Food Network.”