Teen Voices Around the World During the Pandemic

By Kathe Gogolewski, Becki Cohn-Vargas, and Natalia Bout

Prologue

iDialogue, an online-platform for Generation Z collaborative learning and cross-cultural communication, unites students from over 130 countries for collaborative learning and meaningful connections with peers from different cultural backgrounds. Children and youth practice English skills and get to meet one another. They opened a discussion during the pandemic for teenagers to share their experiences, anxieties and fears, and their tips and ideas for dealing with it. We have drawn from over 200 posts written by the youth, from countries around the world, and created an amalgam portraying their thoughts, feelings and ideas to highlight their concerns and share their wisdom. Only names have been changed to protect their anonymity, but their words and impressive use of English with only minor errors have been preserved.

The anxieties forged from the Coronavirus pandemic have altered the way people view their lives, their wellbeing and their security. Across the globe, people share a new fragility in similar ways as both the virus and its ally — a disquieting angst — crosses borders, cultures, and socio-economic levels. As so many adults scramble to find new footing and help others gain theirs, their children are sometimes left alone to deal with their questions and fears. On the iDialogue, they have an opportunity to turn to each other. Teens from around the world express their condolences, ideas, and hopes. They demonstrate an amazing synchronicity in their shared sentiments, while affirming a simple beauty in their candor. It’s easy to imagine that their ease emerged through a mutual trust and belief that their peers would understand them. As their parents, guardians and concerned adults, these quotes offer us a window into understanding the way this virus has shaken their sense of self, and ushers us in as silent witnesses to their resiliency.

Loss of Freedom, Loneliness, and Struggles with Distance Learning

One of the glaring and overriding themes that emerged from their posts dealt with the loss of freedom provoked by the lockdowns and stay-at-home orders. For Nadin, 16, from Russia, “The hardest thing in this whole situation is to understand that you can not do something very familiar, which you did before without even noticing this action — went out into the street without fear, was not afraid to be among people, say hello to friends and breathe the same air with them.” Li, 15, from Vietnam echoes her sentiments. “The streets have half the amount of cars driving on them as there used to be….” Dari,13, from Mexico summed it up neatly. “Now I understand how animals feel living in the zoo.”

Other posts reveal ways that isolation has fueled their loneliness, a loneliness that an online screen cannot fully satisfy. The pandemic has stripped them of the comforts afforded from physical contact and presence. They no longer enjoy full sensory experiences with each other and their teachers, where touching a hand, laughing with a group, or sharing food have all now been reduced to comparatively flat connections on their computers and cells. Teens experience relationships acutely, which define and shape their sense of identity and belonging in the world. “I really miss school because I can’t see my friends because of the coronavirus “ wrote Paola, 13, from Spain, expressing the feelings of many others. Amanda, 15, from the USA concurred “ I keep in touch and text my friends but it is still not the same.”

For some, the transition from school to distance learning at home has been very frustrating. Polina, 14, from the Ukraine communicated thoughts shared by others. “It’s very difficult for me to study online and especially those subjects that I didn’t even understand when the teacher explained them to me.”

Missed Opportunities vs Acute Stress

Many active teens have experienced their lives screeching to a halt. Being stuck at home for these teens often leads to boredom. They may feel disconnected from the troubles of the world, floundering in their own private universes. Jessica, 16, from the USA expressed this with poetic eloquence. “All this confinement has caused many things in us, I know that boredom comes to the house and enters without permission or that the days go by without seeing the time …” As the months of quarantine have worn on, some complained about missing out on many important social occasions, birthdays, graduations, sports events and more. Montse, 14, of Mexico lamented, “Literally lots of things have been getting cancelled like my appointment for my braces, the apple blossom, Quinceaneras, and so many other stuff.”

For others, boredom could not be farther from their reality. Stress at home can create tense and unsettling experiences. “My mom keeps on filling all our drawers with food. She has been so stressed lately it’s impossible to have a normal conversation. Feels like it’s a war time,” Vania, 15, of Brazil shared. Ultimately, there is reason to be afraid when parents have lost or are in danger of losing their livelihoods. In many households, loved ones have fallen sick and some have died. Other families are experiencing severe shortages. “In Mexico, many home products are expensive, so many families don’t have work and can’t buy food for the quarantine,” Jesus, 14, from Mexico shares as he reflects on conditions in his community. Many others across the globe are experiencing similar conditions. While not many students cited violence at home, news reports describe how confinement increases tensions that promote the breakdown of already weakened family dynamics. Violence becomes a serious risk.

Coping Strategies

In heart-warming exchanges, the teens responded to each other with compassion and insight. They shared ways they have found to cope. Relationships, once again, took center stage for healthy support and healing. The positive connection with their parents and guardians appeared as the single most important factor in carrying them through hard times. In many cases, parents filled the gap created from missing school chums, and provided needed reassurance. Ayten, 15, from Turkey tells other teens, “Ok. So all this situation with COVID is bad. But there is a positive side! Our family is closer than ever! I really enjoy spending time with my mom and siblings, getting to know each other like never before.” Daniel, 13, from Mexico pays tribute to his mother with a sweet confession. “I think my mother is a saint. She has so much on her shoulders now…I honestly do not know where she finds energy to take care of everyone. We are so moody and rude sometimes but she doesn’t even get angry, she understands and comforts us. I wish I knew how to express my love better.” Another teen, James, 14, from the USA shares the humor his mother circulates in their household. “My mom keeps sending everybody in my family memes on the coronavirus, specifically time travel memes, where a time traveler asks what year it is, you say 2020, and they immediately run to their time machine and leave or make a face and freeze…”

Positivity also played an important role for the teens in weathering the pandemic. Many nurtured their creativity and engaged in new hobbies and activities. Eric, 14, from Brazil shared a list of suggestions. “Cook your own meals — Play board games with your family! — Make video chats with friends — Read books — Create playlists with new songs! Call old friend — Klean your closet — Watch movies and then discuss them!” Zenon, 15, from Poland suggests online adventures. “I virtually visited the Louvre — I recommend to everyone.” Other teens addressed positivity directly, suggesting a conscious attitudinal shift. Alison, 15, from the USA stated, “During this hard time, it’s easy to be discouraged. Something I like to do to keep the time going is practice or learn a new instrument. Right now I’m learning how to play piano. It’s something to do and it’s a reminder that even in hard times, there can be a positive outlook.” Maria, 17, from Mexico shows how simple appreciation can make a difference. “i think this virus arriving to change how we see the world, we need value more all the little things we have, for example, one visit with your friends, a walk in the park, eat a ice cream, value the liberty to walk on the street and say hello to people you know. Some times only we need eat a birthday cake and get on with life.”

Concluding Thoughts

As we read the words of youth across the globe, we see common patterns that will help guide us as we move ahead and prepare for an uncertain future. Listening to their voices shows clearly what they need from us: optimism and hope. Relationships are the key to supporting youth. We can listen to their feelings, fears and dreams. We can play, laugh, cry, and use this time to connect with them. We can model and discuss coping strategies, including flexibility, adaptability, and resilience, all valuable and necessary qualities for navigating new circumstances and challenges ahead.In closing, we can take our cues from two Polish youth, who capture in their posts that elixir that can carry us all forward. Zenon: “For happiness, a person needs 8 kisses and 7 minutes of hugs per day. How to be happy during the period of strict quarantine and self-isolation?” Faustyna: “The warmest hugs will be when the quarantine is over.”

*********************

Kathe Gogolewski, MA

As an elementary teacher with an MAed, Kathe Gogolewski taught science and later worked as an elementary grade teacher in California. During her tenure, she worked as both a Master and Mentor teacher, as well as working with new teachers and new teacher candidates in both classroom management and curriculum. She provided teachers with a framework for creating nurturing classrooms that welcomed students of all identities and backgrounds with strategies supporting safety in learning within an attainable and challenging curriculum.

She taught Teaching of Reading at California State University, East Bay in the teacher credential program. She has presented at workshops and conferences across the US. She also developed science curriculum for her district as well as successfully obtained grants. Since retiring from teaching, she has worked as a volunteer science and language arts teacher in multiple districts. She has published a children’s book, Tato, and a number of children’s short stories, all with themes that support and foster compassion toward oneself and others. She has traveled extensively to countries in both western and Eastern Europe, Mexico and throughout the US. She lives in San Diego, California with her husband, Ray, and their beloved old dog, Dyli. They have four adult children and seven grandchildren.

Becki Cohn-Vargas, Ed. D.

Becki Cohn-Vargas is the co-author of Identity Safe Classrooms Grades K-5: Places to Belong and Learn and the newly released Identity Safe Classrooms Grades 6–12: Pathways to Belonging and Learning, published by Corwin Press. She presents internationally at conferences and provides professional development in schools and districts.

Becki began her 35 year career in early childhood education in California. She lived abroad for 5 years where she worked on an Israeli Kibbutz, worked providing earthquake relief at a hospital in the Guatemalan Highlands and produced educational films for the Nicaraguan Ministry of Education. She returned to California and worked as a teacher, principal, and Superintendent. In each setting, she focused on educational equity and effective strategies for diverse populations. Becki loves to travel and has visited China, Germany, France, and many countries in Latin America. Becki and her husband live in El Sobrante, California and have three adult children and one newborn grandchild. They own a private reserve in Nicaraguan rainforest, where they bring university students and their professors for environmental and intercultural studies. Find out more at BeckiCohnVargas.com

Natalia Bout, MBA

In 2013 Natalia founded UbuntuMail, an offline social network that connected more than 80,000 students from radically different cultural backgrounds to share stories and create community projects. In 2018 the project transformed into a community-centred remote learning ecosystem iDialogue that effectively supports virtual learning environments and empowers students from 138 countries through collaborative STEM education, cross-cultural communication, and language practice. The main idea behind this project is to help students thrive in our interconnected world as they develop creativity, compassion, intercultural communication skills, and global citizenship. Find out more at iDialogue.