Last spring, Proviso Math and Science Academy (PMSA) English teacher Neal Rutstein was called for grand jury duty. Out of the classroom for the last five weeks of school, he felt bad for his students, some of whom he’d taught for three straight years. They had a substitute teacher, but it troubled him not to be able to see them through the end of their high school educations.
Rutstein said he thought of using technology to communicate with them. Weebly and Remind were platforms he used to stay in touch, but he found them a little impersonal. So he thought bigger.
“Ultimately, it occurred to me that I could conduct video lessons on whatever books we were reading over YouTube,” said Rutstein. “In the evenings, after I returned from jury duty, I started posting short lessons on chapters of Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’ that the substitute could play for the students in class the next day.”
It occurred to him that sitting in a chair talking might “lose its novelty.”
“But everyone loves puppets,” said Rutstein, “and we had tons from when our kids were younger.” So he used puppets to act out scenes.
Rutstein’s doing the same thing now for his students who are on extended learning-from-home while schools are shut down during the coronavirus crisis. His classes are reading Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” so he brought out the stuffed animals and puppets to present scenes from the play.
“Now that schools are on extended hiatus, I fired my YouTube channel back up and my ensemble of puppets, bobbleheads, and assorted other knickknacks are back,” said Rutstein.
He wears a blue facemask in the videos, and part one of “A Doll’s House” begins with him holding up a paper that says, “Coronavirus Theater Presents” and a second paper that reads, “A Social Distancing Production.”
When the production starts, the character of Torvald Helmer is played by a stuffed platypus, and Nora Helmer by a hippopotamus. Accused of sneaking treats again, Nora opens her mouth and M&Ms fall out.
It’s funny, but there’s a poignancy about the mask and the introduction – “A Social Distancing Production” – and even the fact that a high school teacher is going above and beyond like this during a crisis to keep his students engaged.
“I try to make my videos fun because so much of life, especially these days, is hard and increasingly grim,” said Rutstein. “I think when we look back on this era, we’re not going to be as struck by the economic or physical tolls it is taking but, rather, on the mental injuries we’re incurring. Those are the impacts that will be the more lasting. In a way we’ve not experienced since the Great Depression, we’re all being traumatized in real time. The good news is that at least we’re all suffering together, which will make us more empathetic and less driven to succeed at others’ expense.”
His efforts are not in vain.
Vanessa Franco, one of his students, said, “It’s great to see a teacher put so much effort in when they don’t have to. It’s a great comedic relief that distracts us from the chaos outside.”
“I really appreciate how he puts forth the effort to make our ‘quarantine’ more exciting and enjoyable without giving us loads of work and stress,” said PMSA junior Gloria Pitts.
“I love how authentic the videos feel, almost like I am in class,” said student Jatzenni Meraz. And Yirenny Cordero added: “He’s funny.”
Rutstein finds humor in making the videos too. “I record my episodes in one take, which means any mistakes are left in,” he said. “Those are the moments that make me laugh behind my facemask, a timely and lucky device that allows me to dispense with the need to try ventriloquism.”
But he takes what he’s doing, and the situation prompting it, seriously.
“I’m particularly worried for the younger generations,” said Rutstein. “This catastrophe, like the many others they are being forced to experience, is not of their making. Yet, they already realize that these challenges will be theirs to solve. In consideration, the least I can do is sacrifice a bit of my dignity and speak in a high, squeaky voice while making bits of fabric talk.”
He wants to encourage people at home to remember that there are still ways to connect, even if not in person.
“What I will say to the families stuck at home is that we only have to isolate ourselves physically,” said Rutstein. “We can step up our virtual presence game and be there for each other. And when we emerge from this crisis, those strengthened other-connecting skills and impulses will still be with us, making us kinder as a species.”