Perspectives from the Pandemic: A Renewed Appreciation for Connection and Community
Fifty years ago, astronauts first walked on the moon. Those journeys changed what people knew about the moon — and, more importantly, how people thought about life on Earth. While traveling to the moon, astronauts sent back photos of the Earth, providing people with a chance, for the first time in history, to see the Earth as an object, alone, in the vast emptiness of space. The photos provided a new perspective. They highlighted how all of us on Earth are riding together on the same spherical ship through space — how we’re all in this together. Some historians have even speculated that those photos gave momentum to the environmental movement, providing people with a new appreciation for the connections among all living things on the planet.
Today, a half century later, people are again thinking about the importance of connections. Just as photographs from space provided new perspectives about life on Earth, so too have months of isolation and separation during the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact of the pandemic has been tragically uneven, with the greatest hardships falling on those already facing challenges and inequities. But some aspects of the pandemic have been universal. Almost everyone has experienced isolation and separation from family and friends — and a yearning for connection.
Earlier this year, the New York Times ran an article exploring the impact of the pandemic on teens across the United States. The article showed a piece of art created by an 18-year-old named Ryan Daniel (see below). I was struck by Ryan’s description of his art: This piece, a picture I sketched of my little sister inside a box, depicts the entrapment and isolation felt by so many people during quarantine. This is the new normal for my generation. But we have grown together and are now capable of deeply connecting through shared experience.
Ryan’s description captures the complex sets of feelings emerging from the pandemic: the stress and anguish of entrapment and isolation, coupled with hopes and possibilities for growing together and deeply connecting. Different young people have responded to the pandemic differently — in part because different schools adopted different pedagogical approaches during the pandemic. Some schools implemented remote-learning routines focused on delivery of instruction based on the traditional curriculum; in those schools, many students felt increasingly isolated and disillusioned. Other schools focused more on social-emotional aspects of learning, emphasizing the importance of supporting and understanding one another; in those schools, students felt a stronger sense of connection, community, empathy, and engagement. As Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Jal Mehta wrote: “Classrooms that are thriving during the pandemic are the ones where teachers have built strong relationships and warm communities, whereas those that focus on compliance are really struggling.”
One school that has inspired me is Sayre Language Academy, a Chicago public elementary school. Principal Folasade Adekule viewed the pandemic as an opportunity for educational change: “it unshackled us from the narrative of what schooling looks like.” With support and encouragement from Principal Ade (as everyone calls her), teachers focused on developing new strategies for connecting and collaborating with one another and with their students, while they were all confined to their homes. At the same time, the school gave students opportunities to work on projects connected to their own interests — allowing students to “inquire about something that is personal or powerful for you” and then to “share not only what you came up with but also your process.” Provided with time and support for creative exploration and experimentation, teachers and students found new ways to develop and share their knowledge and skills: “That level of confidence, that level of ‘let’s try this,’ that level of sharing the stage, I don’t know if that was happening in our traditional setting,” says Principal Ade.
Principal Ade also worked to strengthen connections with students’ families. The school organized an online version of Family Creative Coding Nights (inspired by Ricarose Roque’s work on Family Creative Learning), with students, parents, and other family members all learning with and from one another. “Everybody was trying it,” says Principal Ade. The school also organized an online celebration for African American Appreciation Month. In an effort to make the event “engaging and interactive,” the school provided families with ingredients for a Senegalese dish and invited a chef to lead an online walk-through of the recipe — while also encouraging families to experiment with their own ingredients. “It’s about carving out a space of creativity,” says Principal Ade. “It’s online, but you have pots and pans in your house, so let’s make it work!”
Many online communities saw a surge of activity during the pandemic, as young people, isolated in their homes, sought new ways to connect with one another. In our Scratch online community, where young people create and share interactive stories, games, and animations, young people shared twice as many projects in the first year of the pandemic as in the previous year. Even more striking, young people posted five times as many comments as in the previous year. Looking at graphs of Scratch statistics, you can almost feel the desire of young people to interact and share with one another.
Many young people created and shared Scratch projects directly related to the pandemic. In the early days of the pandemic, in March 2020, a Scratcher with username helloyowuzzup shared a project titled Acts of COVID Kindness! The project suggested ways for young people to use Scratch to make a gift, such as an animated greeting card or an interactive thank-you note, for “someone who you think could use some cheering up.”
helloyowuzzup created the Acts of COVID Kindness! project just before graduating from high school. While in middle school, she had created hundreds of creative projects with Scratch, including animated stories, art contests, and collaborative music tournaments. But she got involved in other activities during high school, and Acts of COVID Kindness! was her first Scratch project in three years. In her project, she explained why the pandemic had brought her back to Scratch: Social isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic has given me the combination of free time, a desire to create something, and a need to spread kindness that brought me back here. I’ve always been incredibly grateful for the community here that supported me in so many creative endeavors.
Throughout the pandemic, millions of young people came to Scratch as a safe space where they could express themselves creatively, connect with others, and share their perspectives. One Scratch studio, called Hack Your Window, turned the stay-at-home isolation of the pandemic into a catalyst for imagination and sharing. Eduard Muntaner-Perich, the Spanish educator who created the studio, encouraged young people to take a photo of a window in their home, and then use Scratch to create an animated scene of what they imagined or hoped to see outside their window. Hundreds of young people, from all over the world, shared projects in the studio. In one project, the real-life window-view of a wall from an adjacent building is transformed into a beautiful ocean view with animated birds. In another project, the window reveals a game where you release hearts to battle the coronavirus. As one person wrote in the studio comments: I love that we’re all getting creative because of this virus. xD It’s very cool! :D
This upsurge of interest in connection and community has a special resonance for me personally. From an early age, I have been motivated to help people connect, understand, and support one another. My perspectives were formed, in part, by my experiences at a summer camp called Camp Boiberik, where I spent five summers as a camper and counselor, between 1970 and 1975. The camp had been founded in 1923 as a summer getaway and cultural connection point for children of recent Jewish immigrants living in New York City.
At the end of each summer, Camp Boiberik organized a special festival called Felker Yom-Tov, which translates (from the Yiddish language spoken by many Jewish immigrants) to Holiday of the Peoples. For the festival, each bunk of children learned folk songs and dances based on those of a different culture of people from around the world. The goal was for children to gain an appreciation, understanding, and empathy for different people and different cultures.
At the end of the Felker Yom-Tov celebration, after the individual bunks performed the songs and dances of the cultures that they represented, the whole camp would rise and sing a final song with the refrain (in Yiddish) Mir zaynen di felker, Mir zaynen di velt, which translates to We are the peoples, We are the world. The message was clear: We are all in this together. If we want to bring about change and improvement in the world, we need to connect, understand, and cooperate with one another.
Camp Boiberik closed in 1979. But the spirit of Camp Boiberik lives on. Those of us who spent summers at Camp Boiberik continue to be guided by the values of Felker Yom-Tov. My long-time friend and collaborator Natalie Rusk once observed, only half-jokingly, that my work on Scratch is my way of sharing the spirit of Boiberik and Felker Yom-Tov with others.
We now have an opportunity, as the world emerges from the pandemic, to reinforce the values of Felker Yom-Tov, and to reinforce the perspective of the photos from space. The stresses and traumas of the pandemic have led to a renewed appreciation of connection and community. Will this appreciation persist as the pandemic recedes? It’s up to all of us. The time is ripe for embracing connection and community as core values in the ways we learn and the ways we live. In doing so, we can move towards lives that are more joyful, meaningful, and fulfilling. Let’s not let this opportunity pass.