5 Things Students Are Learning Right Now

Every day I read more news stories about how remote learning isn’t working. About how students are falling irreparably behind. It’s disheartening to see all of these headlines because they don’t tell the whole story. My students’ stories — and the stories of many students like them who are demonstrating incredible growth right now — aren’t being heard. They are being ignored because headlines about problems are more exciting than those about success.

I don’t dispute the fact that remote learning is not working in some districts. I don’t dispute the fact that remote learning is challenging for all — students, parents, and teachers alike. And I don’t dispute the fact that there are children out there right now who are not getting reached. As a high school special education English teacher in a diverse district that receives Title I funding, however, I challenge this as our primary narrative about education through this pandemic.

My students have learned a lot in the past nine months, including:

  1. Independence
    Most of my students are already behind grade level by the time they get to me — and yet we keep challenging them with increasingly rigorous grade level work. Pre-pandemic, my biggest struggle as a teacher was getting my students to attempt grade level work independently. They work so hard as long as I am holding their hands, but as soon as I let go, they lose all confidence in their abilities. School is hard, and these kids have powerful memories of failure that prevent many of them from taking any risks. But now that I am unable to hold their hands, they are finally finding out what they can do by themselves. And it’s quite amazing to see.
  2. Problem Solving Skills
    While learning at home, students are encountering untold challenges they must work their way through. They reach out to adults for help — and we offer guidance — but the onus is on them to solve their own problems. What do I do if my internet is out? What do I do if my sibling keeps distracting me? How the heck do I type math equations into a Google Doc? Which adult should I contact to ask for help? (Who will be able to get back to me in the time-frame that I need? What is the best way to reach them?) The problem solving skills they are developing are much more useful than any discrete piece of knowledge we could teach them.
  3. Technology Skills
    Some kids already knew how to use technology. Many didn’t know how to check their email, much less compose one, navigate Google Classroom, complete/submit assignments online, or join a video conference. Some of my students who self-identified as “bad at technology” had previously resisted learning new skills but have since, by necessity, grown more than they ever anticipated. Not only are students learning these technology skills, but they are teaching their parents and younger siblings.
  4. Resilience
    Perhaps the most important thing students are learning right now is resilience, and this is what concerns me most about the current media narrative. The panic about students “falling behind” in academics suggests that they can never recover from such a loss. As someone who works with students who have already fallen behind, I find this narrative insulting to my students. Young people are incredibly resilient, and we do them a disservice by assuming otherwise. As adults, we should be modelling resilience by persevering through our problems, not simply wringing our hands about the hopelessness of the situation.
  5. Confidence
    As students develop their independence, problem solving skills, technology skills, and resilience, they are becoming more confident in their own abilities. While it is certainly critical to address the needs of students who are not currently engaged in learning, we need to validate what the vast majority of students have achieved, which is nothing short of remarkable.

So as we move forward with discussions about what isn’t working in education right now, let’s remember that education is about a lot more than how students perform on standardized reading and math tests. The goal of education is to prepare students for life after graduation. And the students who are rising to the challenge of remote learning right now will be much more prepared for the challenges of adult life than we ever were.

Photo by Stefanie Brook Trout

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