Into the Wild, Quarantine Style

Fall 2020

By Katherine Weida

Think back to your senior year of high school: In March, you were probably getting college acceptance letters, making last-minute campus visits, and planning a graduation party. Maybe you were studying for an AP test, but ultimately your thoughts were focused on your big walk across the stage in June—your ticket to summer freedom.

Imagine, instead, being a member of the graduating class of 2020. In March, rather than wondering about who you might get as a college roommate, you are feeling the rising uncertainty and anxiety of a pandemic. You might be thinking, will there be a stage to walk across? Will college even happen?

Perhaps you were comforted by the quarantine announcement that happened around the country in March 2020. Many teachers were relieved to be teaching from the safety of their homes instead of on the front lines of Germ Central High School. However, the average student, and especially the average senior, when faced with the reality of distance learning, felt a gaping hole where feelings of joy and excitement should have been. For students with learning differences, who had probably wondered whether they would even finish high school, this was an even greater disappointment. What was supposed to be a momentous celebration of their high school accomplishments was fizzling out to be a drab video conference in pajamas.

I teach at a small independent school that caters to bright, college-bound students with mild to moderate language-based learning disabilities such as dyslexia. Multisensory techniques are frequently used across curricula, allowing these students to express their knowledge in a nontraditional way and excel in school. So, when the staff was told we were switching online, it was hard to imagine what multi-sensory learning accommodations would look like through a screen. As a high school English teacher, I felt it was especially important to keep the students engaged with a subject in which many of them already struggled. Furthermore, because I teach seniors, many of whom had already been accepted into college, I realized I needed to do something to keep their morale high and keep them motivated as senioritis quickly settled in.

How can I inspire students to learn? How can I reduce the amount of time they are sitting in front of a screen? How can I get them to have fun?

At the point when the pandemic hit, students would have been working on a final project to conclude their senior year in English. After reading Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, the seniors would have worked in small groups to create a movie trailer. They would have been planning with their group during class time, and then filming together outside of class. They would have found props to help make their film lifelike and focused on fluidity and consistency in filming. We would have had a viewing party, and then we would have given out paper plate “Oscar” awards.

As the weeks crawled along and it was clear that getting back in the building was not an option, I decided to move forward with the final project I had initially planned with the seniors. The learning objectives of this authentic assessment were to determine a central theme of the text, apply this theme to their project, and work collaboratively with their peers. I realized that even though these objectives would be executed differently, they could still be accomplished through distance learning.

I presented the project as a challenge, and instead of the anticipated grumbling, I was met with unexpected positivity and excitement to get started.  After sorting out the groups, students met during class time in breakout rooms to brainstorm, plan, and write a short script. They collaborated using online tools to create mind maps, they settled on a theme to weave into their trailer, they determined the film’s genre, and they worked on shared documents to create a script.  Additionally, they used graphic organizers to determine filming locations, props needed, equipment available, and family members willing to participate in the project. Check-ins were mandatory and went surprisingly smoothly. Not a single group was unable to answer my questions regarding details about their trailer, and everyone was on track to start filming and editing in time to meet the deadline.

As students planned, my expectations fluctuated. Before deciding on this project, I told myself I needed to keep in mind the restrictions and limitations these seniors would be up against. I needed to keep my expectations in check and realize the trailers could not possibly be as good as last year’s. How could they be? No one was allowed to film together! However, although I had not yet seen any footage, on paper it seemed like things were going well. Could these movie trailers end up being home runs? It didn’t matter: Regardless of the final product, students were meeting the objectives, learning, and having fun, and that was all that mattered.

When the videos started showing up in my inbox the night before the viewing party, I was hesitant to open them. I reviewed the rubric I had created for the project and was kicking myself for not leaving some categories more open-ended and more forgiving. What if every single group fails, not because they don’t submit a video but because they were unable to meet the criteria for the project due to social distancing? I thought I had covered all my bases, but I was second-guessing and doubting myself.

After watching the first video, I realized what I’m sure many teachers experienced over the course of distance learning: The students rose to the occasion. The results exceeded my expectations in every way. The filming was creative: They paid attention to angles, especially since many students had to play multiple characters in a scene. The editing was ingenious, allowing characters to have conversations despite being miles away. They paid attention to details, focusing on colors and scenery. The genres varied from rom-com to drama, and the themes were clearly presented through symbols and dialogue. I couldn’t wait for the students to see what they had accomplished, knowing they would be impressed with their peers.

The viewing party was light, fun, and full of almost normal classroom banter. After watching a trailer, students would rib each other’s acting abilities, repeat a comedic one-liner, and applaud a brilliant moment. Highlights included dramatic voice-overs, close-up shots, and one intense scene with a backyard map burning (under parental supervision). Although students did not receive a physical paper plate award to set on their mantles, we ended the year with an Oscars award ceremony honoring trailers with awards such as “Best Actor,” “Best Title,” “Best Dramatic Confrontation,” and “Best Walk Away.”

Recognizing the difficult strain these students were under, I wanted to do my best to make English seem as normal as possible. Was it a perfect solution? No. Did the students enjoy it? Yes! The feedback I received was similar to what I would have expected in a classroom setting: They wanted more time; certain members procrastinated. But also they enjoyed working with their friends; they liked talking to their peers about a text; they liked the change of pace.

Knowing that we are starting the 2020-2021 school year online, I already have plans for movie trailer projects as a way to foster learning and keep energy high. Although online learning cannot replace being in the classroom, I am realizing more and more that it is a solution with positive results and outcomes. Good luck this fall, teachers!
Katherine Weida

Katherine Weida (kdanver@thesienaschool.org) is a high school English teacher at The Siena School in Silver Spring, MD.