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The unanimous conclusion in educational literature has been that 2020 and 2021 will be a generational burden on kids. And it’s true. This pandemic has hit us all hard: educators, parents, and most powerfully, kids. We need to talk about ways to address it, correct it, and be mindful of how our tax dollars can address it.
Yet, there’s something quite special happening in my classroom right now. It’s something that has been revealing itself in larger and larger ways, and I am not alone in noticing it. It doesn’t show up in test data, and it isn’t discussed in any periodical or book that I’ve seen, either. But it’s there nevertheless — a type of silver lining under the voluminous gray cloud of quarantines and distance learning.
“They’re writing incredible stories,” said Mrs. Reed at a rare teacher’s lunch gathering last week, “Not that my crew last year wrote much online at all.”
“Reading more books than they’ve ever read before in my class,” said Ms. Petrivelli. Everyone’s head was nodding up and down. “When we were on the computer, it wasn’t the same with computer programs.”
“They’re curious about content in ways I have never seen,” said Ms. Flippo.
I’ve had similar conversations with teachers coast to coast. I can’t help but think, anecdotally mind you, that many teachers are genuinely seeing something-something that we’ve missed in all the articles and stories about the issues our kids have now. I began wondering what in the name of weekly prep periods is going on.
Unfortunately, googling “what in the heck is going on with kids after the pandemic” didn’t help me much, nor has much sociological evidence been collected on the benefits of a pandemic on children. However, as people with boots on the ground, my colleagues and I would like to ask a few questions for someone smarter than me to follow up on:
As we discussed the kids more, several friends suggested something I hadn’t considered. “I had some parents right there with me while we were online, the whole day,” Ms. Flippo said. “I think that definitely had something to do with a few children engaging more now.” What if, we wondered, parental engagement online was having similar effects as parental engagement before Covid? Wouldn’t that be a silver lining to understanding parental engagement and how we can do it better?
“I know this sounds crazy,” said Ms. Reed, “but I actually think some attention spans are longer now.” She went on to explain how kids during the years before the pandemic had been having a harder and harder time concentrating. Now it’s a mish-mash. “Many of my third graders are flat out able to sit for longer periods.” Could she be right? Attention spans shrinking over the last few years is supported by scientific research. But my colleagues and I wonder: Could the type of screen time or some other factor like video-conferencing or working independently at home actually have increased at least some of their attention spans back in a traditional classroom?
Another wondering I’ve been discussing with colleagues is that there is never a time when students go unsupervised on our campuses. Yet, during distance learning, many kids went unsupervised the entire day. The benefits of independent study on educational achievement have been well researched for years. What effect did independence during quarantine have on student stamina? On engagement? On student responsibility?
Earlier this year, many kids spoke to me about their joy to be in a brick-and-mortar class. One young man with autism would literally have a visceral reaction to a computer put near him, and a sigh of relief when it was taken away. Other kids seemed overjoyed to be among friends. When, we wonder, was the last time we really considered what friends mean to each other in our classes? How might we consider friendship as a learning engagement tool in future years?
Finally, many an article has been quick to point out that technology post-pandemic will simply be a larger and more productive part of our lives. However, what if what we’ve seen during the pandemic is that technology has its limits, and so do kids in front of screens? What would that mean for state leaders purchasing curriculum or providing materials and training for teachers?
Kids may not have learned as much as we’d have liked the last couple of years, but what if we, as educators, can learn a few positive things ourselves from what they went through while at home? We’ve all read about the negatives. But before we go back to business as usual, let’s consider, look for and learn from any positives our kids may have brought back with them.
Thomas Courtney teaches fifth grade at Chollas-Mead Elementary school in San Diego Unified and is a senior policy fellow with Teach Plus California and a member of EdSource’s teacher advisory committee.
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