I never did fifth grade.
The summer after I finished fourth, my family moved to Vienna. When my parents called to enroll me in the a local school, the principal said the fifth-grade class was full. Did I want a spot in the sixth instead? Sure, we said.
After two years in Austria, we moved home to California and I rejoined my old classmates. Remember the fifty states song? I’m told that’s pretty much all I missed.
Cue the coronavirus. Over the past year, we have all learned to be flexible. We have allowed ourselves to do – well, whatever it takes: eat 200% more baked goods than last year, wear pajama pants to work on days that start with M and T.
Somehow, we seem unable to grant our students the same grace. In public schools across the United States, children are falling months behind, yet we insist that the curriculum must go on.
I have had the unique privilege and misfortune of seeing distance learning play out from the inside. When I took a job with City Year last spring – my first out of college – I was raring to go. An AmeriCorps program, City Year places young women and men in under-resourced public schools for one year to encourage the academic and emotional growth of students.
But what I have witnessed in the past six months is disturbing.
City Year partnered me with an English language arts teacher. I help out in her seventh- and eighth-grade online classes. Circumstances at home – unreliable access to wifi, younger siblings to care for – prevent many students from showing up. Those who are present leave their cameras off, so students stare at each other’s initials on the screen. Lessons involve exercises like answering content-based questions about texts that range from mildly interesting to unbearably dry, and watching pre-made videos about, say, appositives. So far, I have seen little evidence that the students are following, let alone retaining, these lessons. Even worse, I have watched as their natural curiosity is transformed into apathy or resentment.
What we should have done for our children – what we can still do – is hit pause. Missing one or two semesters of lessons will not yield a generation of illiterate nincompoops.
Many school districts are transitioning to a hybrid model of learning: some in-person classes are held at limited capacity. But surveys show that Asian-American, Black and Latino students – those for whom distance learning poses the most challenges – are far less likely than white students to return to the classroom.
Hybrid learning, idle children, students held back – none of these is the answer. Instead, virtual classrooms should become what brick and mortar classrooms have always been at their best: a space where students and teachers explore topics in which something true and personal is at stake.
As a nation, we should commit to a semester without algebra, grammar or history lessons. Yes, this means that essential material will have to be made up and reviewed.
And this year? Together, let’s read books chosen by the students. Let’s discuss how they make us feel, what they bring to mind, which itches they scratch and awaken. Students can make a list of all the kinds of plants that grow on their streets; write letters to local politicians; find out who has been on the block longest and what life looked like when they were students. Let’s encourage them to be enthusiastic, inquisitive and creative thinkers. Who knows – maybe we can even learn something, together.
Stella Leitner graduated from Georgetown University last spring and is a student support coach in a Washington, D.C. public school.