This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
For Mattie Davis, getting in touch with her 23 first graders and their families during the school shutdown, has been, as she describes it, like extracting a slice of pizza from a hot pie just out of the oven. There is a lot of waiting while the melted cheese cools — you have to be careful that you don’t burn your mouth — and breaking off the gooey strands as you lift your slice requires a good deal of finesse.
It is delicate work, and it can take longer than you would like. But done expertly, the operation produces a scrumptious reward.
Davis, who teaches at William Dick Elementary School, has spent the better part of two months on her quest to reach all her students so she can get to her payoff — the joy of communicating with her students. She loves to listen to them read, to ask them questions, and discuss simple math problems. All of this gives her more insight into how their minds work so she can guide them to the next level of literacy and learning, which is her lifelong mission.
In the best of circumstances, meeting the needs of all her students, and of their families, can be difficult at William Dick, which serves a mostly low-income African American population in North Philadelphia. During a pandemic, it requires valiant and exhausting effort.
Since March 13, when schools abruptly closed, she has made more phone calls to parents than she can possibly count, at every hour of the day and night. She has called one mother almost daily to remind her when she could pick up a Chromebook so her child could start completing online lessons. On May 19, Davis finally reported success — sort of. The parent had gone to pick up the Chromebook at 440 North Broad Street on Monday, and Davis reached her on Tuesday. “I thought she had the computer, but she said when she got there, it was too late,” she reported. “She told me she’s going back tomorrow.”
The District made Chromebooks available at schools for several days in early April, but not all families were able to claim theirs. The District said they could still pick up the computers at two locations, including its 440 headquarters, during limited times, now Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. “I guess she got there too close to 1 p.m.,” Davis said.
Davis, who had to bone up on the technology herself, has also patiently talked parents with Chromebooks through the steps of signing onto and activating Google Classroom so their children could complete lessons. She has counseled them on what to do if they are having trouble accessing the internet. And over and over again, she has negotiated times she could spend
in personal conferences with students, only to have them not show up on Google Meet or have her calls go unanswered.
So she reschedules.
She has stayed up long into the night entering lessons into Google Classroom, not simply what the School District provides, but work she finds and produces herself. Each day there is a different “morning report” about the weather or the news of the day or an important milestone. In May, among others, she noted the anniversary of the Mount St. Helens eruption and
what would have been the 95th birthday of Malcolm X. She alerted her students to a YouTube channel in which a little boy gives synopses of books, including one written by a daughter of the assassinated activist and civil rights leader.
These morning reports are one way she gets in lessons about science and social studies. Through all this, the irrepressible
Davis — who still lives in her childhood home in Strawberry Mansion — maintains her genial optimism. Despite her difficulties in communicating with all of her parents, she speaks of them with nothing but kindness and understanding.
The pizza analogy is a little offbeat, but goes a long way toward explaining how the 60-year-old Davis, a Girls High, Temple and Cheyney grad who has been teaching in North Philadelphia for 29 years, relates so well to her young students.
As of mid-May, two weeks into “official” online learning for the Philadelphia School District and more than two months after school buildings abruptly shut down, Davis had finally made contact with all 23 of her students’ families. She reports being in regular touch with 17 of them, holding three or occasionally four conferences a week with each student so they can read to her and “have a conversation.” The conferences occur at the parents’ convenience, which increasingly means late afternoon
or even on Saturdays.
Dick is in a neighborhood marked by transience, and she said that since the school shutdown, three students have moved, one to Darby, but these three are among the 17 who keep in regular touch.
Among the other six, there are different stories. One child regularly submits work, but her mother never answers the phone for a conference. “I keep leaving messages telling her that it is important for me to hear little so-and-so read,” she laughed. Still, the mother never picks up. “But yesterday I kept getting alerted: “Student Z submitted work….Student Z submitted work.” The next day, she finally answered the phone and scheduled a conference, but then was a no-show. There are two students for whom the contact has been so spotty that she had to ask school officials for help.
If families can’t get Google Classroom to work, she talks to the student over the phone. In a student conference about math, one little boy was delighted to discover after explaining how he got an answer that “repeat addition” is the same as multiplication. “I told him, as you get into grade two, you’ll be doing more of this…Instead of three plus three plus three, you’ll be doing three times three for your equation.’ So, he was going, ‘Oh, I got this.'”
Lately, Davis said, she has found herself reassuring some parents, many of whom are very young. She tells them they need to ground themselves and cope with this unprecedented crisis, which for many is further disrupting already unsettled lives.
“I tell them, the children are watching, you have to stay in your chill space,” she said. “It reminds me a lot of how it was after 9-11. While I tell them it is okay to express certain feelings, they need to make sure their children aren’t seeing them in a certain way. [The children] know that we’re all human, but they’re so little, so impressionable, you have to help them feel that everything is going to be okay.”
She adds a caveat: “I don’t have all the answers, I’m just a first-grade teacher.”