The idea of preserving the voices and experiences of teachers who navigated a new reality due to the COVID-19 global pandemic was the starting point of the project Teacher-Poets Writing to Bridge the Distance: An Oral History of COVID-19 in Poems. This oral history project emerged from a celebration of National Poetry Month in 2020 on Ethical ELA, a public website for teachers to read and write poetry and share and discover poetry lessons for their classrooms. Over the thirty days of April 2020, 50 teachers from 22 states wrote nearly 1500 poems.
After writing poetry online for thirty days together, several teachers noticed that this body of poetry held experiences and perspectives necessary to the historical record of the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers’ voices needed to be heard and documented. And so we proposed an oral history project to document the shared and diverse experiences that emerged through and around the intersection of writing poetry and teaching during this unprecedented pandemic. To offer agency and reciprocity to the process, we knew it would be important for the teacher-poets to interview each other for this project, so fourteen of the teacher-poets became teacher-researchers, facilitating the oral history interviews through the poems the teachers chose to share, poems that they thought best represented their experiences living and teaching during the early days of the pandemic.
This anthology offers readers the poems shared across the 39 collected oral histories: 166 poems. We extracted the poems from the transcripts to show the line breaks and stanzas intended by the teacher-poets. In the margins of the pages, the white spaces, this anthology also holds the meaningful connections and the sense of community that developed during the interviews where teacher-poets witnessed one another’s lives.
The oral history interviews are available for public access at Oklahoma Oral History Research Program where you can listen to the teacher-poets’ emotions, reactions, and insights elicited by reading their poetry. By doing this, revisiting poems written a year prior, teachers re-witness, with perspective offered only by time, the impact of COVID-19 on them as teachers and on education more broadly.
Feelings of uncertainty and anxiety were two of the most common reactions to the sudden closings of schools. Some felt the need to show their best face and attitude towards the chaos. While feeling uncertain of the future, teachers had to give their best for their students. Every school district had its own set of guidelines and procedures to follow during the pandemic. While some teachers were fully grateful and agreed with their state’s rules, other teachers had to struggle with the decision-making that was taken in their designated schools. Inequity was a theme throughout the interview process, too. Teachers shared how many of their students were not given adequate technology and materials for the transition to online learning. Therefore, teachers had to figure out how to fulfill their students’ and own at-home learning needs based on what was available. Some teachers shared how teacher-parent relationships developed through increased communication and support given during this transition while others lost touch with families and even students altogether.
In several oral histories and poems, there is an increase in self-care. Teachers shared how the pandemic helped them slow down their daily routines and focus on their mental and physical health. Writing poetry was therapeutic — the routine, the audience, the creativity. Many of the poems here are not about teaching at all. They are about being.
The poems in this anthology are arranged chronologically by the date they were archived. You can learn more about the teacher-poets in the section called “Teacher-Poets.” We hope you will bear witness to their lives through these printed words and then again through their voices and silences recorded in the video oral history interviews online at the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program.