The Last Normal School Year

Em Carpenter

Em was one of those argumentative children who was sarcastically encouraged to become a lawyer, so she did. She is a proud life-long West Virginian, and, paradoxically, a liberal. In addition to writing about society, politics and culture, she enjoys cooking, podcasts, reading, and pretending to be a runner. She will correct your grammar. You can find her on Twitter.

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16 Responses

  1. Damon

    I have a friend who’s a public school teacher of little kids. The administration announced that they knew the kids were losing ground and planned to test all the kids and set up individual education plans for them for the next year to get them back where they needed to be. I asked her about it and she said 1) she didn’t know of any such plans, 2) it was impossible with the level of staff. What that really means is its all PR and the kids will never get that back. The admin’s position seems to be “screw em as along as we get are pay raises and the teacher’s union is not bitching”.Report

  2. fillyjonk

    As many of you know, I teach college. This past year where we’ve TRIED for normality (albeit with masks and me teaching with a “zoom option” for those having to isolate/who have medical concerns), it’s been far, far from normal. A couple things I see:
    – Some students think they can log into Zoom and then kind of….do other things during lecture, and not pay attention]
    – I KNOW I teach worse online. I was not trained in online teaching and there have been few opportunities to get any, and also right now my brain is mush from a year and a half of dealing with the pandemic
    – A lot of our students’ lab skills have either atrophied, or they never learned them at all.
    – I can tell the stress of the pandemic is doing a number on some students, especially those with school aged kids at home.

    There seem to be some people struggling with mental health issues (which affects their performance), some people who never really learned study skills/think the pandemic is license to slack off, some people who in happier times would have just needed extra help but now with distancing and with some faculty (like me) hanging on to sanity by our fingernails, we can’t always “be there” for them as much as we should.

    Looking at how people are doing in my intro-level classes…..well, I worry about the continued future of my department. Thankfully I’m within a decade of retiring and if I decided to just chuck it after another year of this (and I just might if things don’t get appreciably better), I won’t take TOO big of a hit in retirement money.

    The problem is everyone is stressed out and discouraged. I know because I’m the “adult” in the room and I’m getting paid, I have to step up, stuff down my frustration and worry, and teach the best I can and be extra accommodating and helpful. But even then, it doesn’t feel like enough.

    We may just have to accept that this up and coming generation will need a lot more remediation/on the job training as they head into adulthood, and provide it for them.Report

  3. Kristin Devine

    Great piece.

    I want to point something out that occurs to me while reading this, and while it’s not PC, it’s for real.

    As a bookwormish nerd myself who never really liked school per se but liked learning, I spent a LONG time wondering what was wrong with my boys. They just seemed to not want to learn anything. I had to force them to learn things, force them to read books, force force force, even the most basic things that they even seemed interested in, like battles and money, and it was super unpleasant. And they’d immediately forget the most basic things like “four quarters make a dollar” just as you say, which is utterly enraging when I knew they’d studied something like only a couple days prior, or studied it repeatedly. The other day my 13 year old claimed not to know what chlorophyll was, and he has learned that like 7000 times. Even the 4th boy, who is a superhuman genius, is like this. I felt like I’d done something really wrong by them to make them turn out so chronically apathetic about learning, wondered if maybe there was even something wrong with them (husband’s genes, no doubt) and it was endlessly stressful for everyone involved. Both before and after pandemic it’s been this way.

    Well, then I had a girl. The girl is totally different. She reads voluntarily. She remembers things longer than five minutes. She sits quietly and fills out worksheets and will do it all day if I wanted her to. If I tell her to do something, she does, without needing to be threatened with time outs or losing privileges. She even eats vegetables voluntarily. It’s a CRAZY difference. Not better, I’m not saying that, just different.

    I honestly think that public schooling, and parental expectations regarding public schooling, is tailored to the learning behavior of girls and not boys. Now sure, there are many boys who can sit quietly and like to read and all the rest of it, and active girls who can’t sit still, but as an overall trend, that’s how it goes. As my husband puts it, these boys were meant to be out on pirate ships learning math by counting the gold in the treasure chest, and not sitting at a desk for 6+ hours a day.

    I don’t even know that it’s pandemic-related per se, though that certainly didn’t help from the way you describe it. We just can’t compare our own school behavior to our sons because they have a different makeup to them.

    The weird part is, somehow it works out, and my adult boys do math and write essays and are relatively functional adults both of whom completed higher education of some type and when I think back on all those times they stared at me blankly and were like “now wait, let me get this straight – 2 + 2 is FOUR? why have you never told me that before” it seems pretty miraculous.

    Long story short – stay the course. Somehow it works out.Report

    • Philip H in reply to Kristin Devine

      Its not just you – there are rafts of studies in the academic educational literature that point to this. Plus what we know about human cognition and learning generally that many people actually learn intellectually while moving. My mom was both a public school teacher and curriculum specialist with and Ed.D. so a lot of this was dinner table discussion for me growing up.

      You as a parent have an extraordinary gift in being able to find out what works for your kid in terms of how they learn. And like Oscar notes below, sometimes we even get the gift of a good dialed in teacher who knows how to manage multiple styles of learning and really gets into each kid.

      In the formal setting however, its often problematic when the teacher doesn’t intuit the differences themselves because then you become the meddlesome parent who won’t let them teach. That mismatch, more then anything, probably leads to so many kids falling behind.Report

    • Marchmaine in reply to Kristin Devine

      Yes, it was night and day comparing sons and daughters … on the one hand, the brightest kid is a boy, but the most active kid is a girl. Nevertheless, from a pedagogical perspective the boys needed lots of breaks and had to have physical exertion (ideally in a group) in order to even come back an concentrate for another hour or so. Not so with the girls… they could power through alone and could compartmentalize their ‘activity time’ for after the learnin’ was done.

      My wife who was/is the primary educator also informs me that ‘studies have shown’ that boys/girls have different developmental peaks and valleys… but that all children have peaks/valleys which explains why some years they just seem as dumb as a box of hammers and other years they leap into new ambitions. But the interesting thing is that these peaks and valleys are not in synch with the sexes.

      The nice thing about opting out of public education (indeed systemic education) is that these things aren’t controversial and can be accommodated in fairly simple ways even in the co-ed programs we’ve participated in.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Kristin Devine

      “I honestly think that public schooling, and parental expectations regarding public schooling, is tailored to the learning behavior of girls and not boys.”

      Ayup! As one of the few male pre-school teachers out there, you have no idea how often the parents of boys who are very boy-y will say, “It just never seemed like his teachers got him before.” It breaks my heart.

      And not just for the boy-y boys…. but also for ALL the girls who may learn more like the boy-y boys do.Report

    • Chip Daniels in reply to Kristin Devine

      I experienced this with my son in school, where the structure and norms of school seem somehow more conducive to girls than boys.

      Compared to say, my experience in Scouts which seemed eminently more conducive to what I call “boy energy”.

      It appears to me that schools are rooted in our business model where the boss gives instruction and the employees then use problem solving analytic skills to get a reward.

      Whereas the Scouts method uses the military model where analytic skills are minimized and action and camaraderie become important. In Scouts we openly acknowledged that the boys could maintain quiet focus for maybe 5 minutes tops, at which time you needed to give them an action break of chants or reforming into some different location. That it is physically painful for boys to stay motionless for too long.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Kristin Devine

      Isn’t this more cultural than gender based. In my heavily Jewish and Asian suburb of New York, there didn’t seem to be any real gender division between the kids who did really well in an academic environment and the kids that did not. There were lots of boys who did really well in school and without much complaint.Report

  4. Oscar Gordon

    Bug is in 4th grade and slowly catching up. He’s got a solid teacher, but like you, I’m a bit shocked by how far behind he is in math.

    Luckily he reads constantly and absorbs facts like he’s training for Jeopardy, so it’s just math I have to ride him on.Report

  5. Kazzy

    Your story sounds much like our story for my stepdaughter. She entered high school this year after two disrupted years in middle school. That is on top of the transition she was making from a more restrictive special ed program to a less restrictive special ed program. We* are having nightly battles/arguments/discussions/cries/scavenger hunts trying to figure out what assignments are due when, where, and how. For us, it feels like there was crucial learning about ‘How to function as a student’ that just did not happen for her over the past two years and now she is expected to function as a typical high school student and just… can’t. Not right now. What we are most struggling with is parsing out how much of this was due to her program failing to prepare her for the transition (I felt like even pre-pandemic, it was offering too many crutches and not enough opportunities to develop the skills for independent success) and how much was Covid.

    Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. She doesn’t know how to take notes. Doesn’t know how to study. Doesn’t know how to use Google Classroom. Doesn’t seem to care about anything other than making sure an assignment is marked “Done”. Etc, etc, etc. So now we are trying to figure out how to simultaneously make up for the last two years AND keep her moving ahead on this year. Oy.

    I feel very fortunate that my younger sons were less impacted. My older guy is in 3rd grade and while I’m sure there has been some learning loss, I largely focused on keeping him mentally/socially/emotionally healthy. I’m lucky that he is basically the biggest school nerd ever so I’m fairly confident he’ll eventually make up the lost time.

    My younger guy is a little less well situated, but he’ll be fine as well I believe. For him, the hardest thing was losing out on the play that PreK and K would have offered him, something he relishes as both a joy and as a learning tool.

    But I really, really feel for the older ones who have limited time and often less support from the schools themselves to account for all that was lost and disrupted.

    *We including all combinations of her, her mom, and myself.Report

  6. InMD

    There has not been a day that goes by since all this began that I am not thankful my son is too young to be impacted by all this. That said I’m constantly struck by the apparent position that there’s just no better way. My son’s private daycare/preschool closed for 2 months but has been open since June 2020. All of the Catholic schools in my area have also apparently more or less functioned in person for the full 2020-2021 school year (my understanding is that there were disruptions in Spring 2020). What am I missing about the public schools?Report

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