Before the pandemic, a friend and I decided to learn to play pickle ball. Since neither one of us is the athletic type, we knew we needed lessons from someone who was patient and supportive. So slowly Tom, our teacher, taught us how to serve — not that those serves always made it in the right court — and how to return that ball — not that we were able to do so consistently. But when the pandemic caused gyms to close down and outdoor courts to be locked and covered in yellow tape, our learning abruptly ended.
Just recently we returned to the game. That first day I was nervous. Would I remember how to serve? Keep my eye on the ball? Remember when to hit a ball into the “kitchen”? Was my former learning lost? Had I fallen behind?
As you might guess, the first couple of serves were awful, but then both of us regained those skills that we had practiced. A good share of the time we could lob the ball into the right court and on occasion return the ball. We were back to where we left off except for remembering the rules.
No, we hadn’t fallen behind.
No, we hadn’t lost our learning.
And what if I had fallen behind (but behind what? Who I was as a pickle ball player before the pandemic?) and what if I had lost some learning? Would that mean that I’d never learn to serve as well as I did when our lessons abruptly ended? Because I can’t recall how to score, does that mean I won’t be able to figure it out when I need it?
As you can probably guess, this brings me to the focus on students falling behind because of the crazy year and a half we’ve all lived through. I want to holler out, “Stop! What exactly do we mean by loss? By falling behind?” As Tom Shimmer asks in his podcast about the learning loss illusion: Who are students falling behind? Last year’s students? Those students in some mythological school somewhere in the world where everyone was on track?
My fear is that the falling behind/learning loss narrative is harmful to our kids. Anytime we see them through the lens of their deficits and not through the lens of their potential, I worry. Remember the Pygmalion Effect that we studied in Ed. Psych 101 back in teacher-school? That experiment that shined the light on the self-fulfilling prophecy? As a refresher, teachers were told that one group of students were high fliers while another group were late bloomers. Even though there was no difference between the two groups, the high fliers outperformed the late bloomers: the self-fulfilling prophecy in action.
Might we be enacting that same prophecy if we thought of those students who walk through our doors as having fallen behind? As having lost a substantial amount of learning? What if, on the other hand, we went on a serious search of their strengths and figured out what they had learned last year? What if we focused on their potential? What if we committed to finding hidden gems in their work?
After all, think about all that our students have learned during the last year and a half: how to navigate the cyberspace world of Zoom, Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams; how to turn their cameras on and, yes, off even when it drives us batty; how to mute and unmute; how to hide backgrounds they don’t want others to see; how to welcome a teacher and their classmates into their homes; how to use the chat and jamboard; how to use platforms like FlipGrid or Kahoot. Our students have navigated this virtual world matched only by what their teachers have learned.
And that’s not counting the other things students have explored. In an interview with middle and high school students, I learned what these students had worked on during the pandemic: baking bread, tying flies with Dad, training the family’s new puppy. Another student talked about Black Lives Matter. “I didn’t understand it so I read everything that I could find.”
But that’s not all that they learned. Some students shared the big lesson from the last year and a half: responsibility. “I didn’t have anyone telling me what to do. I had to figure it out and take responsibility for my learning.” In separate interviews several students talked about the pride they felt as a result of being serious about being responsible for their school work.
One student commented that she was grateful for the reprieve that the pandemic brought. Curious, I probed. “What do you mean?” She explained that the pressure to keep her grades up and to still be active in all of her extracurricular activities had become exceedingly stressful before the pandemic hit, and she just plain needed a break. Moving to online learning actually provided that break. She’s not unique. According to a New York Times article, students in high achievement cultures found the start of the pandemic provided a much needed break. The sad thing though is that the reprieve did not continue into this year. Instead depression and anxiety have once again soared. And what if these students faced that narrative of falling behind or of having lost important learning as they started the new school year? Would that narrative feed them? Would it serve them well? Sadly, we know the answer to these questions: no!
Now don’t take me as naive. I’m in classes and lots of them and see dark screens punctuated with cute icons representing the student but few actual student faces. I hear the silence as teachers work hard to get students to speak up, turn on their cameras, or participate in the chat. But one student cautioned me to be careful about misinterpreting that apparent lack of engagement: “Teachers think we’re not there. But we are. I just feel shy turning on my camera. In class, I might answer a teacher’s question, but it’s different talking to the computer or writing in the chat where my friends can see me. What if I’m wrong? What if I sound stupid?”
And, of course, there are those students who fake attention. While seeming to attend to what’s happening in their Google Classroom, they’re texting on their phones. But how is that different from students who fake engagement in the brick and mortar classroom?
My point is simple. What serves our students well? Viewing them through the deficit lens where we see them as defective? As falling behind? Or viewing them through the assets that they bring to class? To probe what they’ve learned in this whacky year and a half and to build from there? After all, isn’t that what teachers do? Find out where students are at this point in time, celebrate their potential, and design instruction that moves them closer and closer to their potential?
Stevi Quate is a lover of everything connected to literacy education. She is passionate about student engagement as can be seen in her books Clock Watchers and The Just Right Challenge, both co-written with John McDermott. When she isn’t immersed in education, she can be found on the pickle ball court, playing with her rowdy dogs, or figuring out what place in the world she wants to visit next.