Let’s not underestimate our children and youth
As someone who spent her career in education, I follow with interest the debates about when and how education can return to “normal” after this year of closed schools, online instruction for students confined to their homes, and schools sometimes open and then re-closed.
Much debate has centered on safety – for students and for teachers. Conflicts between teachers and public officials have been front-and-center. So have contentious debates about who can get vaccinated first, and whether students in classrooms pose a risk to teachers, some of whom have immune-compromising issues that make them – rightfully so – more than a little fearful.
Another part of the public discussion has been a kind of hand-wringing over how much students have missed, how far “behind” they are in acquiring academic knowledge and skills, how urgent it is to get them back in classrooms and, especially, back to their friends, since social interactions are such an important part of growing up. The upshot of this discussion presumes that if students are not at their desks in a school building, they are not learning – or not learning “enough.”
I beg to differ.
First of all, how far “behind” students are may be measurable in terms of standardized tests, but the deficits are the same for everyone. Yes, we can say that students from wealthier homes had better access to the technology necessary for at-home online learning. But those same students had the same advantages when they were in classrooms over their peers from families of lesser means. Those disparities are a shame, an embarrassment to an affluent society like ours. But they were not born of the pandemic.
Second, as some concerned educators have already warned, if we telegraph to students that they are worrisomely “behind” – we are sure to instill in them anxiety and a sense of inadequacy. Is that what we want? Far better to re-set benchmarks, like scores on standardized math or language tests, to account for the 12 months that everyone lost than to place an unwarranted belief in irreparable damage to our youth.
And finally, the students may not have achieved the “normal” benchmarks in quantifiable tests, but they certainly learned something during this past year. What they learned and how we frame those learning achievements will make all the difference for students’ future confidence and competence.
If we tell students they failed to learn what they should have learned (or, if we are more honest, that WE failed to deliver it to them), they will believe us. If, on the other hand, we tell them that while their learning may have hit “Pause” in certain arenas, they have acquired a rich pool of knowledge through the unusual experiences of this year, and indeed, that they have achieved this learning in spite of significant challenges and impediments, they will believe that, too.
Besides measurable outcomes on standardized tests what is it that students have learned in this past year? For starters, let’s talk technology. We already knew that our children and teens were technological whizzes compared to us older generations. During this year of online learning from home, their technology competence has surely soared.
Our children and youth have also learned a great deal – for good or for ill – from observing how the adults around them are behaving. On the negative side, we’ve had mass shootings, attacks on Asian Americans, African Americans, and anyone with brown skin thought to be an immigrant. For sure, our children have learned from these events, and we hope fervently that they’ve also heard the adults around them condemning such behavior.
On the positive side, I maintain that our children have acquired deep understanding about the meaning of “community” by watching how adults react to the needs of their neighbors. A case in point is Paul Gandilot, a member of the Hyannis Rotary Club (full disclosure: I also belong to this Rotary Club).
As the pandemic forced broad closures, the Hyannis Rotary Club was forced to cancel its main fundraisers, the proceeds of which are used to support scholarships and grants to local non-profits. As a result, Paul Gandilot moved into high gear to identify hands-on service projects that Rotarians could take on to support its community in other ways. One of those projects involved building shelving and cabinets at A Baby Center, one of the many nonprofits the club supports.
Then, serendipitously, Paul heard a news story about children trying to do their schoolwork from home, many of them with limited room to study other than on their beds or at the kitchen table. Paul started building desks and soliciting donations for the modest costs for lumber and other needed materials.
So far, Paul has built and delivered 15 desks to children whose ability to do their schoolwork at home received a major boost.
What do you think these children learned from this gift? They learned that some caring adults wanted to help them achieve. In short, they learned that “Community Counts,” a lesson as likely to stay with them as their multiplication tables.
Let’s not underestimate our children and youth. They are not “behind,” and they are learning every day from our example. They are watching what we do, and they are learning how life works.
Kathleen Schatzberg is a former president of Cape Cod Community College. She can be found on Facebook and Twitter. Her monthly column chronicles community building on the Cape.
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