HSC [High School in the Community] students turn crisis into memoir
New Haven Independent. Emily Hays. May 19, 2020.

High School in the Community senior Simone Henderson had worried about how as an introvert she would handle her graduation party. “Now there has been some shift in the cosmos.” she wrote, Would she even have a graduation ceremony at all?

Henderson wrote about these worries as her first response to an assignment from her English teacher, Jen Sarja. Sarja has asked her students to journal four days a week during the semester marred by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The entries can be either personal or responses to current events and articles Sarja posts for the class.

“It’s been almost the ideal assignment in the sense that it is giving them something meaningful to do. I wanted it to be something that would be of value to them someday,” Sarja said. “Everybody knows where they were during 9/11. Someday their kids are going to ask them about 2020, and they’re going to have these.”

When New Haven schools closed in March to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, the small, Wooster Square-based magnet school had a leg up.

The school already had enough devices for every student to use at school, according to HSC Curriculum Leader Cari Strand. The scramble was to get those devices to students before they left school on the day New Haven Public Schools closed.

HSC students were also already using the district’s preferred distance learning software, Google Classroom. Students knew how to log in and were used to getting notifications through the system, Strand said.

More than 80 percent of HSC students are logging onto Google Classroom every week. The school has contact with those struggling to keep up, Strand said. She said that Sarja’s journal assignment has a high participation rate but a few students still need extra encouragement.

“To my mind, access to technology has been the easiest part of this. The harder part is students being worried about family members or taking care of younger siblings,” Strand said.

Sarja’s journal assignment helps students grapple with these challenges while acquiring the skills HSC aims for them to have. This is a perfect example of the school’s focus on project-based learning, which allows students to work through class materials in the way that makes most sense to them, Strand said.

Students have created wildly different journal entries from one another, both in terms of content and visuals. They create each entry on a Google Slide and are encouraged to include images, quotes and videos. This helps them practice real-world ways of persuading and expressing themselves.

“If you are discussing an issue, you are not going to hand someone an MLA style paper. You have to be able to communicate with images and quotes,” Sarja said.

Sarja herself has kept a journal since 7th grade. She used her journal this weekend to think about the students and experiences she misses during the pandemic. She wrote about a bubble drink one of her students loved and how she used to bring the drink to class for him.

“For me, honestly, it was therapeutic. The best part of HSC is being around these guys and seeing them every day. I miss that so much,” Sarja said.

Senior Emma Bender handwrites her entries and scans them online. She adds a Polaroid picture to each slide. The images are of her parents, board games and craft projects like the teddy bears she has crocheted.

“Her entries have a time capsule-y feeling. From my perspective as a reader, I just think it’s fantastic. It feels really authentic. You can hear her voice,” Sarja said.

Bender found the first journal entries important, as she realized that the pandemic would cause a major disruption to her life but she would be able to handle it.

The assignment has also helped Bender learn about current policies, like how phone apps could help public health officials track transmission. The technology is unlikely to work, Bender decided, because many will not want to use the app or will not have access.

The policy discussions about how the medical field and politicians are handling coronavirus fit with HSC’s social justice theme, Sarja said. All of the students in this English class are seniors and will be able to vote soon.

“This is their chance to get an understanding of what’s on the line,” Sarja said.

Carlomagno Villanueva Torres said that the journal entries help him deal with the pandemic time warp many students are experiencing.

“It’s the only thing that’s keeping me on schedule. Normally, I would probably waste my whole day,” Villanueva Torres said.

Villanueva Torres includes images from comics and television as backgrounds on many of his slides. He has preserved his worries about the risks of his mother’s job cleaning offices in the journal. He has also memorialized the good moments, like this Mother’s Day when he ate burgers, corn tortillas, chimol and bean sauce with his family.

Staying on top of school assignments was one of Henderson’s worries too. She needed help from her advisory teacher on how to balance school and her work at Target in North Haven.

At first, Henderson stayed out of work to avoid bringing Covid-19 home to her great-grandmother. When Target had convinced her they were taking measures to prevent the spread of the disease, she was assigned to hours that conflicted with her online class times.

Now, Henderson has her schedule under control and her journal entries have become one of the activities she uses to stay present with the people she loves.

Henderson writes poetry and exchanges poems with her mother over the phone. She uses FaceTime to paint with her grandmother. She writes stores about her little brother, who she calls Biscuit. She plays online games with her friends.

“Putting myself on the slide and on paper has helped me to be in the moment. It has helped me focus on the fact that even with the whole pandemic, I still have a community. I still have people that are listening to me. We’re still here,” Henderson said.

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