Students at the Center
From Atyani Howard, Chief Program Officer, New Teacher Center
As COVID sweeps the globe, American schools have been shuttered, diminishing the power of millions of children. In the midst of navigating my daily responsibilities as a leader and mother of twin boys, this moment has thrust me into deep reflection. I have been wondering what students across this country have to share that could serve as a catalyst for a more holistic and enduring response. I have also been grappling with my most closely held beliefs about the complex purpose of school and what matters most right now.
At my core, I believe schools are living organisms fed by the energy of the students, educators, and families who collectively create this vital American structure. In this metaphor, our young people are the source of the energy that ultimately converts into the power necessary to sustain and grow the organism. At this very moment, our most vulnerable young people, whose very power and growth is substantially tethered to the organism itself, are suffering.
Recognizing the critical importance of the public-health measures required to protect our collective well-being, we must also acknowledge the significantly disproportionate impact 26 million underserved students across this nation will continue to experience well beyond the resolution of this immediate crisis. These are students of color like me, those living in poverty, students with learning differences, indigenous students, those living in rural communities, and those working diligently to acquire a second language. These young people deserve our unwavering attention as we seek to provide holistic alternatives amidst a climate of uncertainty unmatched in the last 100 years.
Moreover, science teaches us that all living organisms require energy to survive and thrive. They need energy to perform functions such as growth, maintaining balance, repair, movement, and defense. Simply put, energy is the power to do things. This power comes in many ways and forms, but it is all linked, driven by our need for community. Our many noble colleagues, working tirelessly to provide food, love, and alternative learning pathways for our young people, are also suffering without access to the critical energy they receive from their students. This metaphor serves not as an indictment of those on the front lines; rather, a heartfelt plea to begin and end all of our best efforts, strategies, and innovations with the holistic student and educator experience in mind. We must ask ourselves what students need across a broad spectrum to sustain themselves and emerge from this moment with their physical, social, emotional, and intellectual energy as intact as possible. The very survival of the living organisms called schools that undergird our democracy depend largely on our commitment to thoughtfully answering this call to action.
As our organization works to live into our mission and vision in this moment and beyond, we have anchored ourselves in one deceptively simple question: What supports do ALL students need us to provide to educators in order to effectively transform their experiences and outcomes? The voice of our students and their needs must be at the center of everything we do. We must remember that their ability to engage in rigorous academic learning is inextricably linked to their overall well-being. At present, we are asking students to move to virtual learning, stay engaged, and complete assignments in many instances in environments that may not be optimal. However, have we consistently and meaningfully asked young people for their impressions? These critical insights will help ensure the vital energy they carry in their hearts, souls, and minds remains long after this pandemic is contained. To that end, I’d like to share a conversation I had with one amazing student who was willing to share authentic and powerful insights that can serve us all.
In Conversation: Sophomore Student at Kenwood High School in Chicago Illinois
How has your world changed since school has closed?
It happened so quickly. I just remember people talking about COVID in early January, but it didn’t catch my attention. All of the sudden it was a pandemic and then maybe schools were closing. Then, I was out of school. It was so abrupt that we couldn’t deconstruct what was happening. That’s what I’ve been trying to do since school ended.
A lot of young people my age are trying to figure out what this is. How will I live without seeing my friends and going to school? What will this mean that things were stripped away so quickly? One minute we were in school and the next minute we were in a pandemic.
All I remember is that it was a Friday during 7th period and an announcement that school would be closed for two weeks was made. We were told that we could go back to school on Monday to get our stuff. I went. When I arrived, there was literally almost no one there. School starts at 9:00 a.m. and I was picked up by 9:15 am. because I told my mom that there were no kids and very few teachers in the building. I didn’t want to be there.
How has your learning been impacted?
As far as the learning aspect for all teenagers, without generalizing it, it was like hey we’re out of school. I also had that idea and procrastinated a bit and didn’t check all of my tasks during the first week. Now, we’re hearing from the State of Illinois that teachers can’t grade us that much. This past week I have been trying to understand because everything is changing so quickly.
I also have Dyslexia and I am really scared about falling behind. I was nervous to do it, but I reached out to one of my teachers for guidance. I told her I was struggling. My teacher said she was struggling too.
She shared via email that the hardest things for her are that she misses seeing us; she misses the energy of classroom discussions and the epiphanies we have. She gave really great advice though. She said the best advice I have for you is to do your best at normalcy through these times. Don’t worry about getting everything done. Instead focus your energy on what will make you happy and find joy in learning just for the sake of learning. This advice really helped me to step back and try to understand what’s going on.
What is this time like for kids who don’t have that support system?
It’s so confusing at this point because we are hearing so many different things like grades don’t count, but teachers are still giving us work to do and we’re worrying about being penalized for not doing the work. CPS also just came out with an email about remote learning and what it is. A lot of my friends are questioning why we should do the work, or they want to do the work but it’s hard because there are so many questions and the platform is new. I know that once it begins to be hard we sometimes start to give up. It’s really hard. It’s really hard to understand the long-term consequences of this time too. My mom always says that as teenagers our frontal lobes aren’t fully developed. So, I’m wondering how that [understanding the long-term consequences] is supposed to happen?
I am very lucky because my parents can work from home, but where is the help for all teenagers who may not have that support. The opportunity is here to help teenagers be more like adults and be responsible, but I wonder what it’s like for my friends who don’t have a support system.
When have you had a moment of joy during this time?
I haven’t had many moments of joy. My acceptance to the Brown University summer program was one moment of joy that I had recently. My whole family was dancing in the living room. That’s really it.
What is it like when you have moments of darkness?
There is just literally so much time and that is very scary. I am wondering what I am going to do with my day. Should I work-out, watch movies, do school work? The unknown is so scary. It’s like we are in a dark forest and we have no idea what’s out there: animals, crazy people, a cabin for shelter… what will hurt me, what will help? My days are filled with the unknown and all of this time. During the first week of school being closed, I felt like I was waiting for time to pass. Then, the second week came and I woke up at 10:00 a.m. and all of the sudden it was 3:00 p.m. in the afternoon. I wonder to myself whether I accomplished anything. It sounds so simple, but time is the scary part. We came from a very rigid daily schedule: we had classes, teams, commitments, friends, going to work, and now it’s just up to me to use all that time. It’s hard to manage at such a young age.
What do you think young people really need from educators and adults right now?
I think I would want people to know what my English teacher shared with me. She is a great example of what we need.
As students, we know there is a line between us and teachers, but it’s important at this time to open up those lines and have spaces for open connection and discussion. I was scared to reach out to my teachers…afraid that they wouldn’t answer or that I would be penalized in some way. It is so good to know that your teachers are going through similar things.
It’s important to have the space to connect on that level. We are in a historic moment. I know that one day my own children will ask what was it like to be in a pandemic? We’ve lost the connection of our shared humanity. So, if I really had one thing to ask of educators and adults it would be that I wish we would have been more prepared so there wouldn’t be this much technology-based confusion or wondering what our teachers and administrators are thinking. I honestly think a lot of people are losing the connection to school at this moment. In elementary school I had a ton of fun learning. I wanted to go to school to learn. When I got to high school, it was very structured with little wiggle room. Despite all of that, we still miss school and want to return to see our friends, to see the teachers we like, and to have structure.
I worry that we will all lose connection to school. We will lose that space and connection that happens between you and your teacher, or with other people in the school like the security guards and counselors we like. Where are we holding the space for students to share that out and connect?