The 2020-21 school year taught us a lot. Whether we remained virtual all year or experienced some flavor of hybrid, school looked and felt as it never had before.
I’m an educator in the Philadelphia School District, and I’m teaching in the district’s summer learning program through July. Since March 2020, my colleagues and I have seen kids both rise to meet challenges and run from academic responsibilities. We watched them miss their friends but also meet new people and find new ways to communicate. We answered questions that had never been asked before and were welcomed into families in new and intimate ways. Each new day posed new questions and offered different fires to put out. Some components of schooling in the last year made us happy. Others made us bang our head against the computer screen.
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When this much changes, it’s irresponsible to go back to the way things were. Prior to the pandemic, many features of education were compliance driven, inequitable, and outdated.
We need to get rid of everything we found that wasn’t working — and that starts with the phrase learning loss.
To me as an educator, the phrase is so icky I hate to even write it down. Yes, virtual learning during an unprecedented year meant that many students did not get to progress as much on all curricula as they would in a typical year. That students are so far performing worse on tests is alarming, especially the bigger gaps for Black and Latino students and low-income students.
But framing the last year as one of lost learning is the ultimate in disrespect to the efforts, successes, and learning of kids and families. It lays the blame on kids and not the system that has failed them for a long time. The reality, of course, is that kids, their families, and teachers learned a great deal about persistence, resourcefulness, and survival. And tests are not the one or best indicator we have of what our students need.
Rather than pressure kids to “overcome learning loss,” we should take advantage of all that last year revealed. For some of us, it was a wake-up call that districts do not honor learning that happens outside of school, do not serve children and families equally, and do not respect the individuality of the learner.
This school year reminded us that kids need different things from moment to moment. Teachers have historically found ways to respond to changing needs because they have been able to read facial expressions and usually have some autonomy to adapt in the moment. Screen learning sometimes with cameras off, distancing, and masking required teachers to find new ways to assess student needs.
Yet how kids and their families responded points toward opportunities for transformation. They began texting teachers and following them on Instagram, for example, creating quick, modern ways to expedite communication.
Districts need to take note. How can schools keep conversations open and robust so that kids feel supported, heard, and seen? How can we better integrate home learning with learning that happens in school?
Kids have learned in kitchens, in access centers, and in their slippers — all while helping siblings log on or attending to other family needs. Workplaces have adapted some structures to better accommodate the humanness of their employees. Schools must adapt as well by considering changes, like better connecting home with school, ending requirements for kids to wear uniforms, and honoring the effort and work they did while not physically in our care, for example by offering credit for self-directed learning.
Over the course of the last year, kids also asked big, hard questions and demanded answers. They wondered why their schools lacked funding and why people treated them differently based on where they live and what they look like. And they wondered why adults weren’t doing much about it. These discussions forced us to admit that many of our practices in schools were about compliance with regulations, not learning. We learned this is even more pronounced in urban schools, where kids are less likely to have art, music, sports, and time that can spark curiosity in the world and help ideas solidify, compared with their suburban counterparts. We realized that these same kids are more likely to be penalized for behavior infractions, rather than guided to end the behavior.
Many adults are using lessons from this past year — desires to spend more time with family, rethinking what they want from their jobs — to reframe how they work and interact with the world. Kids, on the other hand, don’t always get a say in how their day looks. And thus it becomes important for adults in school to take note and adapt.
As we emerge from this year like no other — one of remote learning, asynchronous days, “type it in the chat,” and COVID-19 screeners — schools need to respond to all we have uncovered about what is and is not important to learning. We can start better serving kids, connecting with their families, sparking curiosity, and valuing unconventional learning with curricula, pacing guides, programs, and opportunities. This is a start to help schools become places that are more effective, more humane, and more equitable. And we can hold on to what did work before, like letting kids wear their slippers to school ... at least on the occasional Friday.
Nancy Ironside is a teacher at Science Leadership Academy Middle School.