By JR Valrey
Zotunde Morton is one of the most talented male educators that I have seen, and worked with, within the borders of Oakland. His patience with children and his passion for teaching are incomparable. His love for the outdoors is intriguing, for students who get a chance to work with him. And his love for the community is peerless. He currently is employed as a site coordinator with Girls Inc. of Alameda County after school program, at Burkhalter Elementary school in East Oakland. As irreconcilable disparities in education between the affluent and impoverished of “the Town” become more and more apparent, as the Covid 19 shelter in place mandate creeps on with no end in sight, I wanted to get Zotunde Morton to share his views as someone who assists in the learning process of our youth, to give his assessment of the social experiment that all of our youth are enduring called distance learning, which is basically going to school solely through a computer. As someone on the front-line of the community battalion to educate young minds, his opinions must be thought about and digested, because in this information age of algorithms, it is getting harder and harder to get real news that may go against the narratives of the government, big pharma, and tech bosses. Tune into Zotunde Morton as he discusses the present day plight of our youth.
JR Valrey: What is the purpose of a virtual after-school program?
Zotunde Morton: The purpose of our virtual after-school program is still in alignment with our purpose pre-COVID, which is to create a fun and safe place for children to learn. The goal is to provide students who are reading below grade-level with additional resources and support to develop their literacy skills. We aim to build social skills, leadership skills, and increase self esteem.
JR Valrey: What kinds of activities do you do with the children virtually?
Zotunde Morton: We are a literacy based program, and as such, we reinforce concepts being taught at school through balanced literacy components such as interactive read-alouds, guided readings, literacy centers, reader’s theater, and book clubs. Additionally, we do STEM related activities such as coding, music math, science, art and more.
JR Valrey: How do the children usually respond to coming to the afterschool program? Why do you think that they respond that way?
Zotunde Morton: Most children come to our after-school program excited and eager to engage. I believe they respond that way because we have been really intentional about building a fun, child-centered community. We often have students in our virtual waiting room 30 plus minutes prior, to the start of the program. This says a lot about their sense of belonging, and desire to be there.
JR Valrey: How do y’all deal with the lack of exercise that the children are getting due to the schools being closed?
Zotunde Morton: The lack of exercise that children are getting due the schools being closed is a concern we have, however it hasn’t been our biggest focus during our daily 90 minutes of program. We often take breaks to do some form of movement and light exercise such as yoga, dancing & stretching.
JR Valrey: Were you trained to specifically deal with children on a digital platform versus you usually dealing with them in-person? How did you adapt?
Zotunde Morton: Prior to the pandemic, I was not trained to work with children on a digital platform. Actually, I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could make this a fun engaging experience for children, through a screen. Having children of my own, I oddly thought of the show Blues Clues and others, that my children had been into when they were younger. I also thought of Reading Rainbow and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and the impact it had on so many children. That’s when I realized that parts of our virtual program, like the opening and closing of our virtual after school program, could be designed like an educational interactive television/game show.
We open our program to theme music while welcoming and shouting out the name of every student in attendance. We even incorporate sound effects, to enhance the experience. This leads to the first of two group games we play daily. In my opinion, our “verzuz battle” has been the most memorable game thus far. Our program always ends with two jokes of the day. Every Friday, we raffle prizes and have a theme such as crazy hair, dress to impress, sunglasses, hat, costume, crazy socks, favorite food, show & tell and more.
JR Valrey: As a veteran of working with children during after-school hours, how do you feel covid has affected learning locally?
Zotunde Morton: Honesty, it scares me to think of the overall impact covid has had on students’ learning. I want to see the results of research and data reports, that will answer that question. Although children, teachers, parents, and families are doing their best, most of us locally were under-resourced to begin with, and ill prepared for this drastic change to education. I’m sure student achievement has dropped, but with time we will adapt and begin to progress.
JR Valrey: After the pandemic, what should the district do to help students, who have not fared well during digital schooling?
Zotunde Morton: I think the district should start by offering year-round school to all students who have not fared well during distance learning until they are performing at grade level.
JR Valrey: Has your pay been cut, as a result of you working from a computer and not coming in to work?
Zotunde Morton: Fortunately my pay has not been cut as a result of me working from home. However, I’m concerned about how sustainable my pay is because we’ve been serving less students since we’ve been distance learning. In education, financial resources are often closely tied to how many students you are serving.