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Even as teens grappled with fear, sadness, stress, and isolation, they were able to recognize some silver linings.
They preferred being able to private chat with a teacher rather than raise their hand with a question. Some of them were able to discover their own learning style away from the classroom. Others enjoyed avoiding the social pressure of in-person learning. Many students liked being able to roll out of bed just minutes before the starting bell.
These are some of the Unexpected Lessons WBUR uncovered in a deeply reported series looking back at the school year. There wasn’t the typical football season, bustling cafeteria scene, or traditional theater production, and yet some high school students across Massachusetts told WBUR they actually thrived.
“When Max Larkin and I began our reporting, we would hear things like, ‘I hope the school at least keeps this around after the pandemic….’ or a parent would decline to comment on a story, saying ‘actually my child excelled this year’,” said WBUR Education Reporter Carrie Jung. “We realized that there was nuance and more to the story. With all the challenges, from learning loss and distractions at home to staying motivated and feeling lonely, there actually were some bright spots.”
Digital goes the distance
Cities and towns scrambled to meet the need for online learning, working to close the digital gap. Improved tech led to new developments. Things like virtual office hours made it easy for students to connect with teachers. Digital platforms also gave students an opportunity to ask questions without social pressure.
“No one has to know you DM’d your teacher with a follow-up question about that algebra problem,” said Jung.
Students told WBUR they were definitely sick of Zoom, but discovered it was much easier to connect with teachers outside of class time. “It’s like having my teachers in my pocket,” explained one high schooler about the connection she felt with remote office hours on phone screens at convenient times. Plus, it eliminated having to miss the bus home or be late to an after-school job.
Remote learning had an upside for some students with learning challenges too. Boston Latin School student Michael Besson called remote learning an “introvert’s dream.” Besson is legally blind. Though he does have some vision, he needs to carry heavy equipment with him from class to class while navigating crowded hallways using a cane. When classwork went online, it became a lot more accessible. Plus, digital slides on his laptop were much easier to read than information written on a whiteboard.
It was also a boon to some students. One sixth-grade student named Harrison said remote learning gave him a brief reprieve from the things he usually worries about and time to work through that energy in a familiar place. Plus, he could wear his pajamas to class.
That perk was universally beloved. Super relaxed attire and later start times were a big hit across the board. The American Academy of Pediatrics has supported later school start times to better align with teen sleep patterns. Many school districts, such as Newton, are adjusting the school day from when it begins to adopting asynchronous schedules.
The pandemic has shown that while students still need to learn coping and social skills, maybe they don’t always have to do it at the same time as academics. For example, one night, Harrison and his friends stayed online all night. He said he made more friends this year than he expected. His mom is pleased with how much he’s learned this year — and not just academically.
Empathy + empowerment
In some instances, the mix of remote and in-person school bridged understanding that might not have happened in just the physical classroom.
Students appreciated how teachers would invite them to weigh in on what was working. As remote learning was new for nearly all teachers, even the most seasoned professional would check in to see if a lesson landed. They’d ask the class if they got it and gather feedback. Depending on the answers, they’d adjust.
“Most of these students told me that this made them feel like their voice mattered. And it felt good to have a hand in their education in that way,” said Jung.
Everyone recognized distractions at home abound, from school-age siblings Zooming nearby to street noise and the ever-present temptation to click on YouTube instead of Google Classroom. Teachers and school administrators helped kids level up, quickly finding solutions to problems. They sent home hotspots for glitchy wi-fi. Headphones for kids working in loud environments. Made Chromebook deliveries and increased tech support.
For many parents, the days of hearing a one-word reply in response to the classic question “How was school?” were gone. Parents were there for it. They saw into their children’s classrooms in a real way, experiencing first-hand how a teacher interacted with their child and what they were learning. And it went both ways. Teachers got more insight into what home life was like for their students. Parent-teacher conferences were robust and well attended. Everyone gained more understanding of family dynamics and met cherished pets on occasion as they Zoom-bombed across screens. Deeper relationships emerged, and empathy developed across the board. A lot of valuable collaborative work happened.
Making the grade
“With all of the ‘unexpected lessons’ that people spoke to me about for this series, the big question for me is…will those lessons be used?” said Jung. “What’s important about pandemic learning is that it showed us that remote learning could be a viable tool in the toolbox.”
To hear the stories of students, teachers, parents, and administrators about what the pandemic has taught us about K-12 education, explore the WBUR series, “Unexpected Lessons.”
Banner image: Students at the Greenwood School in Dorchester get some time outside during the school day. ROBIN LUBBOCK/WBUR