When Winthrop resident Neil Plotnick and his fellow Everett High teachers left school on Thursday afternoon, March 12, they had no idea they wouldn’t be coming back for more than a month – as they were the first school district in the area to pull the plug on schools last week.
The ramifications of the closure became clear soon after leaving school, and like many teachers, Plotnick began to worry about his students and how he could help keep them stay engaged during a time of crisis when they would be out of school for a prolonged period of time.
By 8:30 p.m. that evening, he had what has become a celebrated idea – keeping a diary of daily events, feelings and observations.
“By 5:30 p.m. I had posted some notes on C-programming for my computer class, as it was something we were going to learn about later in the year,” he said. “Then about three or four hours later, I thought about it and felt like it was also important that students have something that will help them catalog their ideas and emotions that they go through as this goes on. I had a feeling this was going to be a big deal as the days went on. I decided that they needed something they could write in every day and they could look back on 10, 20 or 30 years and read about what they experienced and see what they did and felt firsthand. The diary idea was something that creates a timeline to catalog what they’re going through each day.”
Plotnick was formerly an IT worker and cybersecurity expert, but embarked on a second career in teaching more than 10 years ago. In 2008, he began working in Everett and has enjoyed teaching computers and special education classes.
His most recent – and maybe most important – assignment came over the Internet with his students. It was a heartfelt call for them to put together a memoire that they can show their grandchildren and children in the future.
“The next few weeks are going to be something that you will remember for the rest of your lives,” he wrote to students last Thursday evening.
“There will be a time in the years to come when your children and grandchildren will ask you questions.
It may be important that you take some time to share your thoughts by writing them down. Clip some newspaper articles.
Record some videos. Draw, paint and sketch.
You can look back at the memories in 10, 20 and more years from now. I’m certain that you will look back and
understand things differently than today. It’s a great advantage of age and experience.”
Plotnick said it was simply grasping at a way to engage the students when they weren’t in front of him.
“When we left the building, there was no mechanism and no announcements for people to get ready to set up distance learning or online classes,” he said. “We were like a boat dropped in the ocean without any navigation. I know students’ first reactions would be that they are excited not to have to do anything. Then, I knew they would realize they’re bored because there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do. You can only give them a prompt like this. You can lead them. Hopefully, this will engage them and they’ll be excited to carry it through.”
He said he believes it will be a good exercise over the weeks for students to keep busy and note the new things that happen every day. Beyond that, he said it’s something they can share with one another in online classroom platforms daily. Then, later in life, they can look back on it with a sober lens at how they experienced this unique time in history.
“Hopefully it gives them a lens to look back at themselves in 20 or 30 years and they can understand themselves better,” he said. “I hope it will be a great gift to them.”
The idea and the assignment were quickly picked up by members of the media, and praised by educators. So far, he has done several television interviews, and has sparked an interest in journaling current events for more than Everett High students.
“If I’m not remembered for anything else, maybe this is one gift I can give to people,” he said. “You feel helpless now and maybe it is something you can do to help other people as they also go through this trying time.”