My teaching schedule shifted at the start of the 2019-2020 school year. I went from teaching U.S. History II, U.S. History II Honors, and AP Human Geography to teaching Criminal Investigation, Public Safety, Introduction to Criminal Justice, and Introduction to Criminology; the latter two courses being dual enrollment courses through Brookdale Community College. This shift was due to my increased involvement in the Public Safety Academy at Manasquan High School and also due to my background of having worked in Forensics and Appellate at the Monmouth County Prosecutors’ Office. The change was exciting! These courses are designed to give students a chance to learn about the different fields of public safety. The curricula included lots of hands-on activities and provided several opportunities for guest speakers and field trips.
Things were going great at the start of the 2019-2020 school year. My classes took tours of the local police station and a field trip to Eastern State Penitentiary. Guest speakers came in to talk about their careers, including two recent graduates. In class, we were doing a lot of hands-on assignments and role-playing activities. As I was in the middle of arranging for another guest speaker, COVID hit. Many of the details will be spared. I will simply say that the plans for students to set up crime scenes for their classmates to investigate were adapted to where students set up and photographed their own crime scenes at home and submitted them. Students watched videos on how to take fingerprints and did the best they could with whatever items they had at home. In short, we made do. We did the best we could.
The 2020-2021 school year was slightly better. By the end of the year, we were able to do some of the activities that I had planned to have been doing the prior year. Schedule changes, virtual learning, and the revolving door of students in and out did make things complicated, but things were getting better. However, guest speakers could not be found and field trips were not happening.
This year, things have been great. While things are certainly not the same as they were, some great things have been happening. The students have gone on some field trips already including seeing a panel of speakers at Brookdale Community College as part of their "Civility Week," and we toured Eastern State Penitentiary. In January, the students will be going to an area gym to do a police academy workout and will be going to the New Jersey State House in April. The Monmouth County Sheriff’s Office has come in to do talks on "Gang Awareness" and a "Virtual Jail Tour". The Director of Public Safety for Long Branch, Domingos Saldida, came in to talk to the students about his work. The Criminal Justice Department at Brookdale Community College did a "Law and Public Safety Careers Advice Night" where they answered students’ questions about college and getting into different fields.
At Manasquan, I also serve as the advisor for the History Honor Society, Mock Trial, and Model UN. These clubs have all had to greatly adapt since COVID. I remember being at a Model UN Conference in Manhattan and sitting in a meeting on March 7th, 2020 as the advisors from Italy were saying how they had to leave early to get on flights before their country went to full lockdown. For Model UN during the 2020-2021 school year, we were unable to do any conferences or other events that we had done in the past. It has been difficult to find Model UN Conferences to attend this year either because they have become fully virtual events, which takes away a lot of the fun, or they have become cost-prohibitive at $600 or more per student. This year my students have been lucky. We were able to host a Model UN Conference for the local elementary schools that even included a virtual tour of the United Nations. In February, the Model UN Club at Shore Regional High School will be coming to us for the day where we will be doing our own conference.
When MC3 asked for people to write blog posts, they wanted people to write about things that have been going well in their district, which I think I did. There is a lesson in there though, that I want to share with you all. I titled this post "Being Trusted Allows for Creativity" for a reason and I think it is important for administrators to hear and to be reminded of this. I am fortunate to have administrators who trust me and allow me to do things. When I have approached them with ideas to do some of these activities and events, the word "no" did not come up. Rather the words that came up were things such as "yes", "I love the idea", "what do you need", and "yes, and…". The latter is important. Saying "yes, and…" is positive, while it still leaves open the ability to build upon. You may disagree with something, but the "yes" part means that you agree with the theory, while the "and" allows you to put it whatever else you want. This could be "yes, and make sure you fill out all of the paperwork" or "yes, and just change the time of the event." Using "yes, and" is one of the keys to doing improv. The Improv Program at Second City in Chicago learned that skits were much funnier when people agreed with what was happening rather than saying no and taking the scene in the direction that they wanted it to go.
While things have slowly gotten back to pre-COVID normal, not everything is there yet. Teachers still need to find ways to become creative to recapture some of that normalcy. For me, what I have found this year is that the more trust and support I am given, the more creative I want to be. This comes not only from my administration but also from those at other schools who have allowed for their staff members to be involved. For example, teachers at Sea Girt and Spring Lake Heights Elementary School were allowed to bring over twenty students each to take part in the Elementary School Model UN Conference. Shore Regional is allowed to bring their students to spend the day with my students.
There is also a message here to pass along to your staff. There are people and organizations that want to help out and work with students. The Sheriff’s Office would send a person a day if I asked them to. Organizations like the V.F.W. always have people willing to speak. Local museums like InfoAge in Wall and the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Foundation will do a lot. Talk to co-workers or find ways to work with people at other districts to bounce ideas off of. Afterall, all teachers are in the same position. We want to do the things we used to, but sometimes we simply cannot. If we get together, we can find ways to get close.
All of this will fall back to administration, trust your staff and they will be creative. Thank you to those who have trusted me.
by James Fagen
James Fagen is in his fifteenth-year teaching at Manasquan High School. He holds a Bachelor’s in History, a Juris Doctorate, a Master’s in American History, a Graduate Certificate in Diversity and Inclusion, and a Supervisor Certificate. In 2013, he was awarded a James Madison Fellowship and was recently recognized by the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Foundation as their 2021 Teacher of the Year.