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Migratory Birds and the Written Word: Teaching Online during the Pandemic

COVID-19 Reflections on Teaching

Migratory Birds and the Written Word: Teaching Online during the Pandemic

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While domestic pigeons prove neighborhood nuisances in major cities, it’s the common house sparrow who rattles rural areas. Look above the entrances to any apartment complex or office building in the Midwest, and you’ll likely find reflective repellent to keep these birds from settling in public trestles. Some residents, like my neighbor—who from her balcony sprays sparrows with water—opt for a more personal approach. Ruthless and raucous, house sparrows deserve their reputation; comprising a global population of 540 million, they are one of the most invasive bird species in the world (Ackerman, 2016, p. 242).

Recent literature in nature and science, however, widely praises house sparrows for their unique ability to adapt to their surroundings. Unperturbed by human activity, these birds build their homes from nearly any type of man-made structure: porch lights, flowerpots, even the tailpipes of abandoned cars (Ackerman, 2016, p. 239). Moreover, house sparrows are exceptionally resourceful at gathering their nesting materials. When pliable grass and contour feathers cannot be found, household paper scraps and discarded cigarette butts work just fine. And it is their acute ability to adapt to their environment and tolerate change in their surroundings that has kept me, even as I write this, curiously watching them from my one-bedroom apartment—marking another week of a pandemic that seems to have left its mark on everyone and everything except that which is wild.  

We hear the word adapt with increasing frequency lately. Social media posts and TV news anchors offer that now is the time to find our “new normal.” And I think to some degree we in higher education feel that we need to find normalcy quickly. With over 100 students transitioning from my face-to-face classroom to online instruction, I think I’ve found the time to adapt, but this still doesn’t feel at all normal. Because we are in such an unprecedented time, we don’t yet know the effects this outbreak will have on us and our teaching—nor on our students and their learning. As a composition instructor, I also wonder about the extent to which my students’ anxieties about writing will be compounded by this crisis. With so much uncertainty, it’s overwhelming to figure out where to begin.

Students who have taken my composition courses know what I mean when I suggest, “bird by bird.” I’ve quoted the phrase in emails, on chalkboards, and at the end of my students’ papers. The title of a book by Anne Lamott, the motto has always grounded my approach to life and learning. Typically, around midterm, as my students are stressed by the weight of exams and have (admittedly) procrastinated on impending paper deadlines, I stand at the podium and offer Lamott’s story:

30 years ago, my older brother, who was 10 years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he had 3 months to write, which was due the next day. We were at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” (Lamott, 1995, p. 19)

Lamott’s point, in part, is to approach writing the same way: page by page, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, even word by word. The writing process can, at times, be recursive, messy, even overwhelming—especially when it’s unfamiliar and new. And so that’s how I frame Lamott’s narrative for my first-year writing students.

It helps, too, that I occasionally share with my students my latest sightings. In addition to its population’s share of the common house sparrow, Brookings, South Dakota, boasts a kind of bird-watching haven: great blue herons inhabit the nature park just outside of town, turkey vultures perch on Main Street’s water tower, and red-winged blackbirds reside near campus and just recently announced their confident return. I like to think about how, at times, birds learn to adapt to the changing of seasons: searching for food in April blizzards and building nests out of nothing.

In this season of great uncertainty, I would posit that we as instructors can draw once more on our strengths as writers. Despite this new normal of video conferencing and prerecorded lectures, we can still approach teaching the same way we carry out our lives: one day at a time. Of course, students will disclose to us stressors that we are neither prepared for nor trained to address. They’ll ask questions about technology. The internet will be slow, even fail for a time. But perhaps what we have now, more so than at the semester’s beginning, is more time. Time to read. To listen. To explore the fricatives and fragments of language. To, as Anne Lamott suggests, take this bird by bird.  

Songbirds like the bobolink sweetly harmonize across the open prairie, but wild geese are the chief harbingers of spring. Once considered extinct, geese mate for life and even experience distress when their flock is in trouble (Ackerman, 2016, p. 130). They form their migratory chevron shape by creating space behind and between each other. In doing so, they generate an “uplift”: the airstream behind each goose that helps the entire flock travel farther together than if they were flying alone. Traversing long distances through unfavorable weather conditions, geese honk to communicate with and account for each member of their skein. But honking also serves as a form of social encouragement: not only to adapt their pace, but to maintain space—to uplift. And as we navigate this new season with our students and colleagues, so, too, shall we.


Ackerman, J. (2016). The genius of birds. Penguin.

Lamott, A. (1995). Bird by bird: Some instructions on writing and life. Knopf Doubleday.

Katie E. O’Leary is an instructor of English at South Dakota State University.


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