By Kyle Layne-Allen, Middle School English Teacher
Learning From Our Youngest Learners During The Pandemic
I never thought I’d face a pandemic in my first year at Worcester Academy. I remember leaving my sixth graders’ poetry portfolios ungraded atop my desk thinking that I’d be back in time to assess their brilliance. Anticipating a return, my seventh graders made action-based reflections about how they and others could support community members in light of the COVID-19 related trauma, racism, xenophobia, and health risks that were all so quickly emerging early last March. I left their notecard reflections pinned on the wall hoping that a comeback to school would be soon. We didn’t return to learn together on campus until the fall.
Today, we’re setting up a return in early April while our community members still face the residual effects of COVID-19. If you take time to chat or learn from our middle schoolers, a mix of reactions about our return to full time in-person classes arise. Students have told me they prefer learning in person because they feel more energized or engaged when in the presence of their friends (none of them noted being energized by being with teachers! I won’t hold that against the respondents). Others praised remote learning’s possibilities because they feel less rushed and more at ease being at home. I echo my students’ mixed feelings.
Part of me struggles with the return because this time has created such uncertainty in me and in all of us, to some extent. I want to elevate my middle schoolers for their perseverance in light of the doubt. I’m excited at the opportunity to continue working among our middlers. Yes, our adults have helped shape our space and they deserve their flowers. But our middle school students’ contributions to crafting our learning environment and safety during this trying time should be honored, too. During the pandemic, students rose to the challenge of juggling health, three modes of learning (in-person, distance, hybrid), and an interrupted “normal” school year last spring. Our Board of Monitors went to task in creating our digital and in-person community. And this year, all middle schoolers co-constructed a social contract that reinforced the principles of following the COVID-19 guidelines, staying on task in class, positively supporting each other, and respecting and honoring each other’s differences. And for the most part, our learners have risen as accountable agents in maintaining their end of the bargain. As they continue to create this “new normal”, I’m most excited to see how they take accountability knowing that we’re returning to in-person education full-time. I’m equally curious about how these young decision-makers will act in a communal learning space given the lack of close, physical connection that has occurred. I was reminded about this connection when I observed two students in conversation during an in-person day this fall.
As we transitioned from outside to inside, I followed the pair of students upstairs to my classroom. They respectfully kept a distance of 3-6 feet with masks. The first, who was closest to me, repeatedly instructed about their name’s pronunciation to the second, who was leading them up the Rader lobby stairs to Language Arts. The second student sounded the name based on their peer’s instructions; they used attentive phrases like “can you say it again?” or “let me try again.” Their trials didn’t quite bring them to the correct pronunciation according to the student-teacher, whose responses of “good job”, “almost there” or “you have to emphasize this part” were clearly those of an educator. Both continued the conversation as I walked into the classroom quietly behind them. As they sat at their assigned seats, the two drifted from this healthy, banter-filled, and culturally-packed moment that reflected peer-to-peer encouragement, clarification of ignorance, and firm following of COVID-19 protocols. I learned a lot from their convo’s subtle and direct lessons about the nature of teaching and learning in light of differing peoples during a pandemic. The part of me writing this last sentence looks forward to learning more with and about our learners through moments like these as we engage in yet another new version of “normal” classes this spring and moving forward.