Students Learned So Much More During the Pandemic Than We Realize. Just...

Teaching and Learning

Students Learned So Much More During the Pandemic Than We Realize. Just Ask Them.

By Ben Kirshner, Beatriz Salazar, Arturo Cortez and Carlos P. Hipolito-Delgado     Oct 11, 2021

For Lucinda, a Chicana high school senior, the shift to online school—while not great for completing schoolwork—created new time and space for other kinds of learning.

During the COVID-19 shutdown of spring 2020, she taught herself to garden and started reading a book about Mexican-American history—her own history, as she puts it—called Radicals in the Barrio.

The shutdown, for her, was “a good time to do research” that offered “a lot of time to learn” and reflect. She was not alone.

Kamal, a Tajik-American senior, taught himself about cryptocurrency and how to invest in stocks. Cynthia, a Latina junior, learned about the chemistry of hair-dying. For many of these students, the closure of their schools created time to learn, perhaps for the first time, about subjects and issues that interested them.

We heard these examples—and many more—while interviewing Denver Public Schools high school students a few weeks after in-person instruction was halted in April 2020. The interviews were for a research study, in partnership with a student voice and leadership program, which preceded the pandemic. We modified our questions so we could learn how students were adapting to attending school virtually.

We imagine that some of you, especially teachers and school administrators, have encountered narratives about how COVID-19 has devastated learning and created new anxieties for students. News headlines dwell on the risks, challenges and deprivations experienced by students, crystallized in the ubiquitous phrase, “learning loss.”

Although the pandemic intensified and exacerbated crises of income, education and health inequities, too often the evidence about disproportionate challenges faced by minoritized youth from low-income families morphs into damage-centered, one-dimensional and inaccurate claims. Influenced by education researchers such as Kris Gutiérrez, Maxine McKinney de Royston and Na’ilah Nasir, we are interested in documenting young people’s ingenuity during this challenging time.

What we've learned is that two things can be true at the same time. The shift to online school led to struggle for many, and it led young people to act creatively and with ingenuity. The loss of in-person classes contributed to declines in test performance for some students, and it created new opportunities for student learning and inventiveness. Instead of so much focus on learning loss, let’s talk about learning gained.

Doing interviews with high school students enabled us to hear numerous stories about young people’s agency, ingenuity and interest-driven learning. They point the way to an approach to school that, although talked about for a long time, continues to be rare in the United States: one that is student-centered, culturally relevant and grounded in context.

Three themes stood out from our conversations with students that offer guideposts for educators on how to foster student engagement and learning in the post-pandemic era.

Making the Familiar Strange

Online school had a disorienting quality that allowed students to see themselves and the world in new ways. The experience of traveling to school—and the time it might afford to reflect, relax or connect with friends—was gone. The familiar boundary between school and “not-school” became blurry. Students logged into class from their bedrooms, or from the break room at the job where they took on extra hours to help out their families. Many students reported having more unstructured time than to which they were accustomed.

This disruption to familiar routines created new opportunities for student insight and learning. Consider this response from Cynthia when prompted with, “Anything else you've learned about yourself or about your community?”

Well, normally I tell everybody I live in the ghetto, but I do not, apparently. … Well, because my—the houses around in the neighborhood, it looks sketchy, but then I’ve been taking my dog on a walk and stuff. I go around, and everybody's really nice. And then since they're in quarantine and stuff, they have time to work on their yards and stuff and are planting gardens. I'm like, “Oh, we're not sketchy.”
-Cynthia, a Latina student in Denver, Colo.

Cynthia described a shift in how she perceived her neighborhood. She contrasted a generalized and pejorative label, “ghetto,” with a more nuanced account that stems from walking around her neighborhood. This opportunity to interact with her neighbors enabled her to see her neighborhood in new ways.

Another student, Pilar, described a shift in how she perceived her school. She had previously assumed it was bad, because of its color-coded test score rating, saying, “It’s not a good color.” But while describing it to a friend, who was thinking of transferring there, she realized, “It’s actually really cool, because we have all these good teachers and the whole mental health department and Student Board of Education. … We have all these things, but we’re put into such a bad light.”

Like Cynthia, Pilar began to question the negative label applied to her school by others in light of what she realized it had to offer—good programs, teachers and extracurriculars. Both students began to perceive the world in new ways as they adjusted to new rhythms of life during the pandemic.

Opportunities to perceive the world anew—to make the familiar strange—are of critical importance for students, of all backgrounds. What does it look like to make the familiar strange in our high school teaching? Classroom spaces that encourage inquiry and questioning, such as structured dialogues or critical analyses of news media, are a great place to start. Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) offers yet more opportunities for students to draw on their lived experience to make visible and challenge taken-for-granted patterns of inequality and racism at their schools.

Seeing Student Ingenuity

Young people demonstrated ingenuity in how they picked up new hobbies and developed new interests during the nationwide lockdown. For example, Kamal explained:

They’re not really correlated with class or anything, but I’ve been interested in trading, so trading stocks and cryptocurrency. So I’ve been really getting into that because I have the time, and I think it’s an opportunity. I think a lot of people are really scared, like, “Oh, the economy is shutting down,” or “We’ve seen a downwards trend for the first time in 10—or decades.” So I think it was an important opportunity for me to realize a lot of younger people can make money right now.
-Kamal, a Tajik-American student in Denver, Colo.

This young person started to learn the process of trading stocks and alternative currencies as he followed economic fluctuations during the pandemic. Kamal’s engagement with these topics signals resourcefulness and ingenuity with his time spent outside of school. Moreover, he shows concern for his peers and how they might also find ways to make money during a challenging time.

Many other students took advantage of newfound time to explore interests and learn about relevant topics that aren’t addressed in the school curriculum. Lucinda, who took time to learn about her Chicana heritage, explained that the book she read on the subject had not been assigned in school—she'd had the book for some time, but did not have time to read it prior to the pandemic.

Another student, Monti, a Black male junior, explored spiritual questions: “I've learned listening more to my thoughts, being one with myself, and just researching things, like religion and stuff like that.”

Monti’s reflections on cultural and religious history were just a few of the many forms of ingenuity students showed. Other topics that students explored included studying languages, skateboarding, how to bake and cook, how to walk the dog without a leash, gardening, how to dye hair and making visual art.

In many of the examples of ingenuity across interviews, students contrasted these new learnings with their schoolwork.

For example, the future stock broker hedged before offering the above statement by suggesting that his newly learned practices were “not really correlated with class or anything.” We find it telling of a broader trend across the data: Young people were involved in ingenious activity, yet many felt these practices would not be seen as meaningful by school standards.

Seeing young people’s ingenuity starts with the recognition that to be human is to be creative. Seeing it, though, is challenging if we equate test scores with learning or accept deficit-oriented lenses about the histories and cultural practices of non-dominant young people, their families and communities.

Family Responsibilities as a Resource for Learning

Students discussed the multiple ways they balanced familial responsibilities and interactions with schoolwork during the quarantine. For some of the students interviewed, it was about caring for the well-being of their family, while for others it was about overseeing their siblings’ education and/or assisting in the learning of others.

Marisol, a Mexican-American high school senior, took on many responsibilities for her family, including cooking for her siblings and helping them with their online assignments.

One of Marisol’s sisters—at the time, a third grader—was still adjusting to using a computer, so Marisol would read through each of her sister’s assignments to make sure she had completed it correctly and then help her submit it.

“I want to be that resource for her, but also being able to do my work and managing all that”—it was a lot, Marisol said. “And then also having to do some household stuff. My mom is working now, and so cooking for them, doing some breakfast, and stuff like that.”

Marisol described multiple ways that she supported her family during the shutdown and online school. It was, quite understandably, “hard to manage at times,” but she was doing it. We noticed, however, that she did not give herself credit for how diligent and responsible she was. Instead, in a separate part of the interview, she commented on her “lack of motivation” for school. Marisol demonstrated a diligent work ethic and found a way to balance her time and responsibilities across multiple settings, yet she had a hard time seeing all that she was doing as motivating or even productive in terms of school.

Marisol was not the only student we interviewed who alluded to adjustments in home life and its impact on motivation. Jenny, a Hispanic high school junior, reminisced about the structure at school versus remote learning:

I think I’ve learned that I definitely need to push myself to get my work done. Being at home, I do feel like I have other responsibilities, but I do still have to push myself to do them. Especially because my school is very—it’s structured like a normal day, and it’s from 9 a.m. to 2:40 p.m., and we only have an hour lunch break, so it’s very structured. … Yes, I just have to focus a little bit more, because like I said, I do still have those other responsibilities that I have to get done while also still getting all of my work done.
-Jenny, a Hispanic junior in Denver, Colo.

Jenny reflected on her effort to juggle varied responsibilities and manage time while attending school from home. Caretaking roles, while valuable in their own right, also create opportunities for practicing a range of self-organization skills, such as prioritizing tasks, collaborating with others and managing time. These kinds of skills are essential for young people’s development, whether preparing for college or professional life.

Centering Student Ingenuity in Schools

The pandemic took a toll on students; our purpose is not to minimize those challenges. But at the same time, let us not buy into the dominant discourse of learning loss. It is fraught with deficit perspectives about minoritized communities and misguided assumptions about learning.

Instead of going “back to normal,” we should learn from this experience. What new lenses are we prepared to see the world with? What if students’ knowledge and skills gained by helping out with their families or pursuing their interests were brought into the classroom?

As we navigate this next phase of the health crisis, we can create opportunities for students to see the world anew through critical reflection, curiosity and creativity. Students have begun this work—let’s invite them to show us the way.

Image by eamesBot on Shutterstock

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