These are unprecedented times. Students have been hearing those words since March as they watched people hoard toilet paper, parties get canceled, and, perhaps most notably for students, schools shift to an online format. These unprecedented times don’t seem to be ending any time soon though, forcing students to adapt to them.
East is currently in an all remote learning setting, per the SD308 school board’s vote at the beginning of the academic year, with the most recent news that a late-autumn / early-winter return to hybrid for elementary & middle schools will be pushed to January 6th at the very earliest. (More details on the plan to reopen in January will be shared with the public no later than December 22nd, according to communications that went out to the district on November 17th.) The current remote plan is necessary for the safety of the community and working as well as it can, but there are some key changes that need to be made within this “new normal” learning environment in order to help students succeed as the semester comes to a close.
While most would agree that sitting in front of the computer all day is not the ideal way to learn, the current remote structure still holds educational benefits. Remote learning pushes students to take responsibility and hold themselves accountable for their work. While teachers can email or send students reminders to submit or revise assignments, it is ultimately up to the students to motivate themselves to finish what is required of them. Most students now hold themselves accountable at a level that many would only reach upon entering college. Email accounts that were used once a week last year are now pulled up each day to ensure an assignment, question or grade doesn’t slip through the cracks.
The current remote plan also provides more structure and direction to students’ days. While last spring (understandably) felt like a frantic rush to learn how to use Google Meets and communicate with teachers online, students can now contact and interact with their teachers much more smoothly. Classes are held each day with more clear expectations, and after school Student support time works well enough as a placeholder for meeting with teachers one-on-one in normal times. The district stepped up to the challenge of constructing the remote for all plan and did well in designing a better use of time during the school day.
This being said, there are still issues with online schooling that should be considered as the East community moves ahead to a potentially hybrid model of learning in the coming semester.
The increased sense of responsibility and accountability is useful for students, yes. But it can also be an overwhelming amount of pressure for students to take on and is a gateway to resignation. It is not the school’s fault that students are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with having these newfound responsibilities, but the school must be aware that when students elect to sit on the sidelines in class discussions or turn in below average work, they are (more than likely) not intentionally trying to fall behind. It’s a snowball process: a forgotten assignment here, a late essay there, and then in the blink of an eye, the grade in the class has dropped 10% and there are 18 other notifications on Google Classroom requiring attention. The feeling of drowning in virtual assignments is very real for students, and the best way to not sink is to simply remove themselves from the ocean. To turn in less work and spend less time on school is a means of escaping the suffocating feeling that working on so many assignments causes. Yes, it would logically make sense to stay afloat by turning in work and trying to stay on schedule, but in a fight or flight situation with stress, sometimes flight simply wins.
In a more academic sense, there can be issues within the structures of classes themselves that can also lead to this feeling of being overwhelmed. Many teachers successfully converted their courses to an online format that is both manageable and engaging for students by using various Chrome extensions and editing tools for assignments to make them more interactive. Meanwhile, others chug along with the same amount and style of assignments that students would see in person at East, sans pandemic. And although this decision may be an attempt to imitate normalcy, it actually highlights the lack of it. Doing labs and constructing complex projects at home in students’ homework time cannot come close to the experience of completing the same activities in a controlled setting with a teacher to advise and instruct.
And once again, having to tackle these kinds of challenging assignments can trap students in a state of fear that their work will never be what it could have been in a typical setting, and make it seem reasonable to give up trying. Or, these types of overly-rigorous classes can put students in a constant cycle of trying to perfect every assignment and never being able to tear themselves away from obsessing over one or two classes.
On the other end of the virtual classroom structure spectrum, there are the busy work classes. These classes may not be as stressful as the overly-rigorous ones but can make students feel just as resigned to stop putting effort into schoolwork. The class functions in a fairly straightforward manner: students log in to class for the day and are met with Google Forms (or worksheets), independent readings, and a laundry list of tasks to complete that are neither too difficult nor too groundbreaking. The busy work assignments can pile up quickly and seem so arbitrary that students may lack the motivation to understand why the assignment is helpful and leave it unfinished or complete it sloppily right before the due date.
It would be ignorant to assert that the overly-rigorous classes and busy work classes never existed pre-pandemic. But a remote setting highlights how the teachers of these classes are not providing enough to their students. Teachers of overly-rigorous classes especially need to understand that classes are not supposed to function this year just as they did in normal times. Courses that are project-based and more involved with hands-on components at school being moved to a fully at-home experience quickly become time consuming and overwhelming despite how they have the potential to become meaningful educational experiences if teachers would focus on what students can realistically accomplish with several other classes on their plates. Teachers of the busy work classes must understand that as they assign endless worksheets, the tasks don’t attempt to engage students, but rather, reduce their understanding of topics to how well (or how quickly) they can get through some basic readings and assignments. Students are not compelled to ask questions or go more in depth with topics because the material seems black and white. While these busy-work classes may not be as stressful, they solidify the feelings of being bored or overwhelmed by a large quantity of work as students “learn” from home.
And if you mix together the overly-rigorous classes and the busy work classes, the stress of a pandemic and the uncertainty students are facing, you reach the distraction factor: the aspect of online learning that is overlooked the most.
Teachers probably know by now that while their students are giving them thumbs-ups and head nods to show engagement in lessons, their minds are quite possibly wandering to anywhere but the screen in front of them. They may be fretting over COVID case numbers or political updates. But it’s just as likely that their minds wander to Netflix, TikToks, or other frivolous things that make up parts of teenage life. But here’s why it matters that students are distracted: they probably don’t mean to be. It’s not intentional. The first time these students took a stab at online school in March, they didn’t have to focus on much other than coronavirus cases and however they chose to pass their time away from minimal school assignments. It was okay to let assignments fall to the wayside, because classmates and teachers alike were shocked along with the rest of the world as it watched the coronavirus pandemic unfold.
Of course, the world and East’s community cannot remain shocked forever, but instead restructure schooling around the barriers COVID put in place. However, what is often forgotten as the memory of last Spring fades away is that remote learning in the Spring was a low-stakes situation. Students were not held accountable for their grades, in fact, it was nearly impossible for their grades to drop. Yet, now the stakes are much, much higher. Now students’ grades can fluctuate just as they would in normal times, but without the same access to teachers or perhaps resources as in normal times. Now, students are expected to be on a device, focused on school, for a minimum of about six hours per day (not including homework time). Now, school is back to being in the front seat of students’ lives again, and it’s all the more difficult for them to give schoolwork the attention they know it deserves.
Students aren’t distracted because of laziness or apathy towards grades, but because of not having the headspace to confront the fear that online school as a whole is difficult and draining and might lead them to not reaching the same successes of previous academic years. And that’s a hard fear to confront, especially when your college years, or perhaps early career, will be affected by your performance in high school. So they turn to what is accessible: memes, laughter, and numbness to the alternate reality they are finding themselves in each day. They may not feel that they’ll be good at calculus today, but something they know they’re good at is analyzing the latest episode of a reality show. Schoolwork just doesn’t seem meaningful anymore. It seems like the background noise to a super long weekend at home. They know it’s not, but can’t get their brains to “switch” into the correct mentality. So they check their phones every five minutes. They turn in assignments at 11:58 p.m. They wait because waiting and finishing with low quality work is better than really committing to the work, being vulnerable and asking questions, and ending up with a low grade on something they thought was high quality.
The distraction factor isn’t something the school can be expected to take responsibility for, but it is something the school should be aware of as teachers note the glazed-over look on students’ faces or the increasingly deep bags under their eyes. This is not a call for teachers to simply back off and say, “You guys are under a lot of stress. Let’s just do nothing for a day or two.” Students know just as well as teachers that this attitude is not a useful one to adopt. On the contrary, it’s exactly the kind of approach that needs to be broken. Students and teachers alike have to understand that now is not the time for them to choose flight over fight. Everyone has to work together to make the online learning experience a better, manageable, engaging, educational one.
That requires an effort from teachers to honestly reflect on how much and how difficult the work is that they assign. But it requires something from students too: effort. Even when the overly-rigorous classes and the busy work classes and the distraction factor are all working against them, students have to put their best foot forward and still do honest, genuine work in online school. From both teachers and students, improving online learning also requires vulnerability. Asking for feedback and for help. It’s easy to feel like brushing off schoolwork is the easiest alternative (because maybe it is), but allowing yourself to work hard and ask about what confuses you will be much more rewarding in the end. Perhaps the notion that education is a symbiotic relationship — a democracy, so to speak — needs to be a bit more pronounced. Just as students should be encouraged to ask more questions, so too should teachers be encouraged to ask students if teaching practices are truly working. So too should teachers be talking with one another about the amount of work that is being assigned. It’s easy enough to teach within the cocoon of an Oswego East classroom — teachers cannot resign themselves to similarly teach in a cocoon of remote learning, apart from the rest of the world.
There is still a long way to go before everyone can be happy with how school is functioning in a remote setting, but if everyone has learned anything from the challenges of this year, it’s that they can adapt. As much as students and teachers alike may want to power through until the end of the semester, it’s now all the more important to look back and reflect on how online school has been approached so far and how that approach can be altered moving forward.
The Oswego East community cannot possibly find improvement by giving up or simply settling for an educational model that ultimately works best in-person, when students and teachers won’t be in-person for some time to come.
But what the East community can do is work on its attitudes and recalibrate how the community will meet those circumstances in each day to come.
While written by staff editor & writer Elizabeth Dyer, this staff editorial represents the opinions of the student journalism Howl staff as a whole