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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Student Well-Being Opinion

Students Respond to Adults’ Fixation on ‘Learning Loss’

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 02, 2021 9 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series.)

The new question of the week is:

There’s a lot of talk about students suffering “learning loss” because of the pandemic—what does that mean, and how concerned should we be?

The phrase “learning loss” is everywhere in articles and discussions about COVID’s impact on education.

Many of us teachers, however, have concerns about how that phrase is being interpreted by policymakers now and what the responses to that interpretation could look like in the fall.

Last month, I shared my own thoughts on this issue at Teacher: What’s missing from calls for summer school to stem ‘learning loss.’

In this series, two educators share much more sophisticated and precise commentaries than I did.

Not a ‘quantity over quality’ approach

Neema Avashia is an 8th grade civics teacher in the Boston public schools, where she has taught for the last 18 years. She was a 2013 Educator of the Year in the city of Boston:

If our educational response to the pandemic is more of the same tired approaches that we were already trying before the pandemic—pages of standards, longer school days, more and more and more assessment—it will fail, just as it was failing prior to the pandemic. We have an opportunity to think and plan differently in this moment—to build a system that is responsive to the needs of the students it purports to serve. Doing so requires that we begin by listening to those young people and amplifying what they say they need, as opposed to what we as adults think they need.

The phrase “learning loss” is everywhere. Uttered by governors at press conferences as a rationale for reopening schools. Emailed out by consultants who offer “ground-breaking solutions” to addressing it. Batted back and forth in heated debates on Twitter between those who are wringing their hands over it and those who say, “Kids are surviving a pandemic, not losing learning.” And every time I hear another adult use the phrase, I wonder: Is learning loss the most pressing concern on my students’ minds? Or are there other losses that hit harder?

Here’s the truth that too many adults who don’t directly work with young people refuse to acknowledge: When our youths are frightened, disconnected, grieving, or anxious, they aren’t learning. Their brains aren’t taking in our lessons, or holding on to the Common Core standards. Their amygdalas are in charge, and adults just sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher. If we are going to address the academic loss that may have occurred during the pandemic, then we also need to fully understand the other kinds of loss our young people have experienced and have plans in place to support them through those losses.

As a veteran teacher in the Boston public schools, one important lesson I’ve learned from my students is that everything I plan with them goes much better than anything I plan without them. In the context of pandemic schooling, this has proven particularly true. No adult alive right now fully understands what it means to be a student in school at this moment. What’s worse is that the people in charge of making policy decisions are so far removed from the experience of pandemic schooling that their decisions don’t even seem to reflect the lived realities of young people.

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Since the spring, I’ve created opportunities at least twice a month for restorative-justice circles during class where students have space to share how they are feeling, how school is going, and what they want adults to know in that moment. Each time we have one of these circles, I leave with 10 new ideas for how I can be a better educator to my students and how our school can adjust its practices to better support their well-being and their learning.

I decided recently to have my students respond directly to this notion of learning loss. To see if it weighs on them in the same ways that it does for adults and to see how the solutions adults are proposing (extended school days and years, use of standardized testing to assess loss, academic intervention courses, etc.) land with young people. I created a circle with three questions:

  • During the pandemic, what are things that you feel like you’ve lost?
  • During the pandemic, what are the ways that you have seen yourself grow or learn new things?
  • Many adults in education right now are very focused on the idea of “learning loss.” They think that kids are falling behind academically during the pandemic. What do you want those adults to know about you and your experience during the pandemic?

I invited multiple circle-keepers to attend our Zoom class and broke students into small groups where they could have time and space to reflect deeply on these questions. I promised my students that I would share their ideas with the wider world, so that their thoughts could inform the policy conversation. The quotes below are directly pulled from the Google form that students completed to prepare for our circle.

Students reflect on their pandemic losses:

I lost my ability to be happy. Staying in the house is not for me. Basketball really helped my depression, and I can’ t play it now. I’ve lost a lot of interest in my friends. I stick to myself.

I lost family, I lost myself and what hurts me more is that I lost everyone who said they were going to be there for me.

I lost time I could have been enjoying my childhood.

I have less motivation for school.

I’ve lost myself.

Students reflect on their pandemic gains and growth:

I used to feel like I didn’t want to do school anymore, and because of the pandemic I had to think to myself that’s not the path I want to go down. So I started changing and completing more work and focusing on myself instead of other people.

I’m starting to have more confidence in myself.

I am better at managing my time and my school work. I I feel more well-rested. I am better at speaking out a little more.

I learned more about my people and I learned more about what people did to Black people then and now. I also learned to respect people’s identity and try to find out my own. I also learned to love myself and to see who are my actual friends.

I haven’t learned anything from school to be so honest because online school stresses me out so much. Out of school I learned that you have to forgive everyone and love who’s near especially in times like this.

Students respond to adult ideas about “learning loss”:

I think they are wrong because we have improved our grades and we try to do as much work as possible, also we learn more things from home because we are more focused.

This pandemic is already very stressful for students and giving us more work won’t help. Also, it’s very risky, since kids can bring back the virus and family members might not have the healthcare they need.

MY GRADES ARE BETTER now. Stop tryna change things because you are uncomfortable. Thank you.

I want them to know that some kids may be struggling, but some are having less of a problem with remote learning than others because every person has different experiences with things.

They have many opinions but they’re not the ones who wake up and get on Zoom everyday.

Implications

One of my students said it best when she said, “Adults’ intentions might be good, but their solutions are really lacking.” From listening to my students, three themes emerged that I have not yet heard discussed in depth in the policy conversations around post-pandemic schooling:

  1. Post-pandemic schooling needs to focus on relationships. Students described losing connections to their friends, their teachers, and most painfully, to themselves. In our return to in-person schooling, rebuilding connection needs to be the priority. This will require smaller classes, better teacher-student ratios, and increased presence in schools of adults who both want to, and know how to, support students with re-establishing connections.
  2. Post-pandemic schooling needs to prioritize mental health and wellness. There is no question that the pandemic has impacted student mental health. The question is whether simply putting students back into the classroom is going to address their struggles. And the answer to that question is a resounding no. Students with mental-health struggles often didn’t have adequate support in our schools prepandemic. Over 430,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, and American schoolchildren will carry that grief with them when they come to school each day. We need to see a significant infusion of resources into mental-health services for young people, both in schools and out of them: into staffing and programming such that every student who needs support has access to it. This is something that has never existed in equitable ways across school districts in America, so the funding and planning should have begun months ago.
  3. Postpandemic schooling needs to take a less-is-more approach. The adult anxiety around “learning loss” is completely tied to the “quantity over quality” approach to curriculum and standards that plagues our education system. One of the best moves we made as a school community this year was to change our schedule so that students only take three long classes at a time and alternate between “deeper learning” modules. This has supported students in managing their work, in focusing on core concepts, and in creating multiple opportunities for fresh starts for students who are overwhelmed or struggling. Students don’t want to go back to a six-period day, and neither do I. We need to re-evaluate our approach to standards, deeply consider what is essential vs. what is extraneous, and encourage schools to build schedules, structures, and curriculum units that support deeper learning, rather than superficial coverage.

Let’s not return to our previous ways of educating students. We have an opportunity to think and plan differently in this moment. To build a system that is responsive to the needs of the students it purports to serve. A first step in doing so is to listen to our students.

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Thanks to Neema for her contribution!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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