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Light and Hope

In last week’s post, I reflected on the lessons we may, or may not be learning as we navigate troubling times, perhaps the most challenging of our lifetimes. This week, I want to touch briefly on what the kids are learning during this experience.

Recent reports are dire. They suggest that while reading ability does not appear to be increasing, it is at least holding steady for the majority of students in our classrooms. Conversely, these same reports illuminate a significant decline in mathematics since schools were shuttered. Other reports indicate that patterns of academic failure, as evidenced by increasing letter grades of D or F, are occurring at a rate not previously seen in school systems across the country. These indicators shouldn’t surprise anyone. They demonstrate what we already knew.

We know that most children learn best under the watchful eye of a trained, competent teacher. We know that the opportunity to forge meaningful relationships with their teacher(s) is instrumental in students’ willingness and ability to effectively engage in learning activities. And we know that kids thrive in the company of others and benefit from chances to collaborate with their peers in the pursuit of learning.

Of these three conditions, educators have done their best to mitigate the first two. But, the isolation that students are experiencing may hold drastic consequences. Incidents of reported depression and anxiety due to the lack of socialization are on the rise. The mental and emotional health of our children is at risk. And, I believe that the fragile state of their emotional and mental well being is a key contributor to any patterns of declining achievement. Who can do their best when they’re depressed? I can’t.

Do the research yourself. Google “academic achievement during the pandemic.” (I did.) Then, look at the data. Kids are hurting. Growth is stagnant. And the negative effects are the most damning for our most vulnerable children: children in poverty and children of color. Maybe, just maybe, we are focusing on the wrong things during the attempts to promote academic growth in a climate of remote learning. Could it be that, instead of promoting achievement, we’re pouring salt into the wounds of our neediest students? For many of these children, we’ve created a deficiency model by reminding them of what they can’t do or are unsuccessful at, absent the caring and knowledgeable support of their teachers. The longer this continues, the greater the harm.

Here comes the reason for the title of this article.

Here’s a suggestion for the remaining months of our imposed academic isolation. What if our focus wasn’t based solely on academic performance and we shifted away from deficiencies for the time being and, instead, deliberately highlighted areas of growth and attainment - focusing on what kids have learned. Not only could this be a springboard for future approaches when face-to-face instruction resumes, it could offer students vitally important opportunities to experience some positivity and to have some hope during a time when both are sadly lacking.

What have they learned so far? First, they are developing independence. Kids have been thrust into an arena of having to figure things out on their own rather than depending on the crutch of learned helplessness. To attain even the smallest degree of success in their strange new world has required that they become increasingly self-reliant and courageous. Second, they are demonstrating resilience and persistence in the face of challenge and adversity. As hard as it has been, most of the nation’s students continue to show up, to log in and to slog through what is very unfamiliar and frequently difficult. They may even be learning the skill of self-advocacy. Finding themselves in the quiet isolation of their bedrooms, they are learning to identify what they need rather than wait to be told what that may be. Students who haven’t yet thrown in the towel on this new way of schooling are also learning organization and time management skills. Their screen time with their teachers is limited and there aren’t any bells or audible signals to indicate when it’s time to shift gears. They are learning to be adaptable.

And they’re learning social responsibility, that sometimes it is necessary to do things we would prefer not to do in the service of others.

These “lessons learned” don’t just fit into the categories of “nice” or “soft skills.” These are essential, included on the lists of requisite skills for a capable 21st century work force by American and global business leaders. Acquiring them is a true accomplishment.

Teachers have a role, a responsibility, to point out the presence and application of these skills to their students. Kids may not see it or know that they are applying something that is critical to their current and future success. So adults must seize every opportunity, as frequently as possible, to call out and label the skills students are demonstrating.

Celebration is in order!

This post is shorter than most, and it is my last for 2020; a year that we are anxious to have behind us, but one that we will remember for a long time.

I will resume my weekly postings on Monday, January 4, 2021.

As we close out a year that has been painful, challenging and ridiculous, there is reason for hope. New leadership brings a promise of possibility. We can now anticipate that science has found a way to bring Covid-19 to its knees. With a little more patience and discipline we will once again be able, very soon, to congregate, socialize, travel, open the economy, have kids in classrooms and hug each other. Imagine that!

For every cultural and religious tradition, this is a season of hope and promise, symbolized by light. Even though our celebrations will look different this year, I pray that your hopes will be fulfilled and promise is realized for you and those you love.

Until next year . . .


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