Our Students, Our Schools, Our Future

As I begin writing this, I’m taking a few deep breaths and trying real hard not to press the caps lock key. It’s a challenge. Because I’m fired up.

Eh, to heck with it…

STUDENTS ARE LEARNING!!!

Did you hear me? I said, STUDENTS ARE LEARNING!!!!!

It seems like a ridiculous thing to have to say, but apparently it needs to be said. And I’m here to say it. Loudly and confidently. STUDENTS. ARE. LEARNING.

Yeah, I’m failing at that caps lock restraint thing.

Speaking of failing, that seems to be a big concern as of late. I get it. I mean, I understand that, as a society, we’ve embraced a fairly silly notion that learning is linear, that all knowledge and skills worthy of learning are easily assessable, and such assessment boils down to numeric values and letter grades that are, apparently, clear indicators of learning and, thus, achievement or lack thereof. In that sense, I get it. In every other sense, I do not.

Thankfully, despite the alarm I’m seeing and hearing, others are pushing back in thoughtful ways. In “The Ridiculousness of Learning Loss,” John Ewing addresses the panic-inducing concept of “learning loss” as it pertains to decisions made about schooling during this global pandemic. He writes, “[T]he term ‘learning loss’ comes from the language of test enthusiasts. For them, learning is a substance that’s poured into students over time.” I am not a test enthusiast. I agree that, as Ewing further explains, “Learning is complicated. Plutarch famously wrote that minds are not vessels to be filled but fires to be kindled. Fires don’t leak. You don’t measure them in months. Learning loss is a calculation masquerading as a concept–a rather shallow, naïve, ridiculous concept.”

This graphic I came across on Facebook helps to further clarify:

Now, this is all further complicated by the perception that there’s a finite amount of time in which to educate individuals. This flies in the face of our efforts to create life-long learners, but I digress. Or do I? Aren’t all these philosophies related? Doesn’t this entire conversation speak to our thoughts, understandings, and beliefs about what education is, what it should be, and, perhaps, what it might be?

In an op-ed published in The New York Times titled “Make Schools More Human,” Dr. Jal Mehta writes:

The pandemic is giving us an opportunity to make a pivot that we should have made long ago. We have been on a treadmill of short-term fixes, pretending that if we just get the right test, the right incentives, put the right pressure on teachers and students, they will achieve what is good for them, like it or not. But we are realizing what we should have known all along: that you can’t widget your way to powerful learning, that relationships are critical for learning, that students’ interests need to be stimulated and their selves need to be recognized.

An opportunity. That’s what this is: an opportunity. That’s all…and that’s everything.

We can learn from this. We should learn from this. But we have to take advantage of the opportunity to do so.

This is exactly what I tell my students a dozen times a day. Learning isn’t a given in schools or anywhere else. It can’t be forced and it doesn’t magically happen even if your English teacher is crazy about reading and writing and research and dances around the front of the classroom touting the benefits of using your noggin.

All I do is offer students opportunities to learn and grow. I carefully craft units and lessons that allow them to further develop their skills. I can’t do the learning for them and I can’t force them to learn.

And

STUDENTS ARE LEARNING. 

This may be hard to believe since you have likely heard a lot to the contrary, but I’m witnessing it. Every day. I’m working with students, I’m checking in on them, answering their questions and encouraging their efforts. Students are learning.

Is my grade book riddled with missing work? Yes. Does this affect the calculated grade? Yes. Does this mean that students aren’t learning? Heck no. Will I take this all into consideration before declaring a final grade? Of course! As a professional educator, I understand and appreciate that learning — real learning — is messy.

As if this business of learning and growing wasn’t challenging enough, during a global pandemic, nonetheless, students are being undermined at nearly every turn. “Kids aren’t learning,” people say. “Kids can’t learn like this. Kids are going to be behind.” Folks, the kids hear you. And, unfortunately, they believe you. 


Earlier this year I posed a question to my students: True or false? It’s possible to fail a class and actually learn something. Not one student argued that this was false. We all agreed that letter grades are not the definitive indicator of learning we’ve been made to believe. Then I switched it up a bit: True or false? It’s possible to get an ‘A’ and learn very little. They contemplated this a bit and we discussed, but we came to the collective conclusion that this, too, is true.

So school is a tricky thing, hey? It’s not as cut and dry as we make it out to be. That should make sense because school is all about people. Individuals. Human beings. And human beings are complicated. It makes this all (life, really) quite nuanced. To ignore these nuances is disingenuous and, actually, detrimental. No, we cannot “widget [our] way to powerful learning,” and we should stop trying to do so.

We’ve been faced with a lot of complicated problems throughout the past 11 months and, by and large, we continue to seek easy answers. When will we learn?

Our students are learning. It’s time we caught up.

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