In a year that many have considered lost, we have learned much.
We learned that we have many gifts and talents. We got better at our hobbies and discovered new hobbies, too. We learned that we are good at chipping in — we can cook for our families and take good care of our siblings. We learned how to fix things and do chores properly. We also learned how to manage our time, avoid procrastination, practice self-care and love, and appreciate and enjoy the present.
Our school lives were transformed just as much. We are members of the Student Advisory Board of the UCLA Community School. When the coronavirus changed life as we knew it, we came together to be sure that student voices were heard as our school moved to online learning.
Our principal, Leyda Garcia, asked us to make a research project on our situation. In doing so, we were able to shape our teachers’ and administrators’ understanding of our experience with school during a pandemic and lead efforts to improve it.
We started last fall by designing and conducting a bilingual online survey for students. More than 60% of our peers responded. We spent weeks analyzing results — figuring out how different groups of students were doing and how best to share what we found. We learned how to code students’ open-ended responses with the help of a researcher from UCLA and analyze these data.
We figured out ways to show our findings through tables, word clouds and graphics. We found, for example, that our peers struggled to balance a number of additional responsibilities outside of school as a result of the pandemic. Like us, students shared that they had to care for younger siblings or their older relatives, cook and do chores because their parents were working. Some took on outside jobs for pay — in some instances more than one job — to help their families.
We discovered that students, based on grade, differed in how useful they found school-provided resources, i.e., internet hot spots, computers, breaks during class, allowing late work, meditation/yoga. We also conducted grade-level focus groups to deepen our understanding of students’ feelings regarding what and how they were learning.
In addition to building skills as researchers, we gained insights into our community and online learning. While these are challenging times for all, we found that our wants and needs are necessarily different.
Some students want to experience more engaging assignments and expressed that they spend too much time doing “busy work.”
Others disagreed and felt assignments were just right given the circumstances and that they have been able to spend more time reflecting on and exploring topics of interest to them.
Bottom line: It is hard for our teachers to please everybody!
Analyzing student data made us consider our teachers. To understand their experience, we designed a survey that gave us a better appreciation for the tremendous efforts they have made to create a space where we can continue to connect with each other and build a strong community.
We began to understand the amazing and difficult job they have of managing their own families while teaching us and keeping us engaged. With this new understanding, we initiated a “turn-your-camera-on” campaign and encouraged our peers to turn on their video cameras during distance learning at a particular day and time to show our appreciation.
Across all the groups we surveyed, all agreed on this: We miss our in-person community most.
We also learned that empathy and appreciation will be integral to how our community moves forward. As one student shared in a focus group, “We must be grateful for each other.” In particular, we have learned that, even during these difficult times, our teachers continue to be there for us and are eager to hear our voices.
Principal Garcia invited us to share our findings with the entire staff during their weekly professional development meeting. In Zoom breakout rooms, we led discussions and answered teachers’ many questions about the needs and concerns of our fellow students. It felt good to share the information we had found and to help our teachers see and learn from it as we had.
While it was nerve-wracking to talk to so many adults, speaking on behalf of our peers was empowering and exciting.
Teachers were thankful for our efforts. One shared that learning from us can help set the culture at the school and “let ourselves be human” during these times. Another teacher said she learned she needs to give “our kids and ourselves grace.”
This year has been far from ideal, but it has not been lost. We have learned so much about ourselves and our school community. We have learned that our voices matter and that we have the power to gather information, communicate it and make things better — for us and the entire school. These are lessons that will stay with us for life.
Gustavo Aguilar, Alex Alejo, Guadalupe Laureano Carranza, Jamie-Lynn Juco, Nareli Juquilita Lopez and Adriana Rios-Cruz are students in grades nine through 12 at the UCLA Community School, a K-12 public school co-located on the campus of the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Los Angeles. Students of color comprise 99% of the student population.
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