I teach at the Urban Assembly School for Math and Science for Young Women, an all-girls school serving grades 6 through 12 in downtown Brooklyn, N.Y. It is a very ethnically diverse school, with students from countries in the Middle East, Africa and the Caribbean.
Like so many others, we also are a school that did not anticipate having to “do school” from home for half the year. That changed due to the coronavirus. The transition has brought challenges, learning opportunities and adjustments for both students and teachers.
That’s what this piece is all about. We want to share the experiences of students working through the pandemic at home, and what that journey has been like for them. Their stories offer a look into how students across the country are feeling, shedding light on their creativity, resilience and desire to “get back to normal.”
One of the questions we asked students was: “What do you miss most about school?” I think of this often.
I miss seeing my students each day and engaging with them. These days, too frequently I only see their names representing them as students on Zoom sessions—that’s if students can attend live at all. More than half of my students do not show up to live sessions on a regular basis. Most times I am speaking into space, hoping for a response. I cannot see the productive struggle on a student’s face. I do not get to see them engaging with one another and to witness the contentment on their faces when they successfully work through a complex problem. There are fewer teachable moments. There are no high fives for being awesome.
So, I miss many things about school. At the same time, I am inspired by my students’ resilience and commitment to their academic journeys despite the challenges we face with the coronavirus.
Below are reflections from three of my students: 10th grader Amal Sakran, who already speaks English and Arabic, and is working on Korean; ninth grader Oyinade Falope, originally from Nigeria, and ninth grader, Kayla Rengel.
Q: Where does ‘school’ happen for you now?
Amal: I work from my bedroom while sitting on my bed. My nephew’s bed is right next to me. He’s only six months old. When he wakes up, he cries, “Neh, neh!” He is mostly asleep in the morning, but when he’s awake, I go to the living room. I usually use my phone so that I can use the earbuds. When I participate in chats on Zoom it is hard for me to keep up with the conversation because I have three different keyboards on my phone: one in English and two in Arabic.
Kayla: I work in the room that is both our dining room and kitchen along with my two brothers and dad. Usually both boys have their classes, too. They don’t have headphones, so we all hear their classes. Around 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., my mom has to cook. When school happened at school, we used to just eat and sometimes play board games in that room.
Oyinade: My workspace doesn’t really have a lot to it. I just work on my bed. My bed isn’t very big but I find it the most comfortable place to work. I can see the sky from the window in my room.
Q: How did you prepare for school before the coronavirus? And what about now?
Amal: Before online classes, I used to wake up early, at 5:30 a.m., because I live far away from my school. I spent an hour and thirty minutes getting ready, including taking a shower and washing my face. Then I took two trains to get to school.
Now for my online classes, I wake up at the exact time as the first period begins, 9:00 a.m. Online school has been especially hard during Ramadan, since suhoor (a small meal and prayer) happens sometimes as early as 4:40 a.m. This means you cannot eat between 4:40 a.m. and almost 8 p.m.—from sun up to sun down. It is hard to figure out when to sleep. I get more tired when fasting during Ramadan with online school.
Kayla: Before COVID, I used to wake up early in the morning to get dressed and wake my brothers. I usually woke up at 6 a.m. because I had to get my younger brother ready for school by 7:10 a.m. My brothers would eat but I usually didn’t have time to eat. We would leave the house by 7:10 a.m. and get to my brother’s school at 7:30 a.m. We sometimes took the bus to his school and from there, I would then take three trains to get to my school.
Now, I wake up at 8:20 a.m. for a family devotional meeting. After that we get dressed and eat. By 8:55 a.m., we are ready to get started on either computers or tablets.
Oyinade: Before online classes, I woke up around 5:30 a.m. to get to school. After getting dressed for school, I would wait for about 30 minutes before I set out to the train station. If my train wasn’t delayed, I would arrive at school about 8:16 in the morning.
For online classes I can wake up at 8:30 a.m. to prepare for my 9:00 a.m. class. But I can’t seem to manage this schedule! I don’t go to sleep early enough at nighttime and that means on many days I wake up at 10:00 a.m. When that happens, I miss two Zoom classes. I have to go back to watch the recordings but I’m supposed to be preparing for my next two classes that begin at 11:00 a.m. and at 12:00 p.m. So I have no choice but to move on to the next Zoom class and watch the two classes I have missed after I’m done with all the remaining classes and complete the exit tickets. It feels like going to the building was less work!
Q: What’s different about online classes?
Amal: Online classes go fast! I like it. I understand everything and I am focused, but still I would like to spend more time in class. I can’t talk directly to my friends in online classes. This is good because it helps me to improve my English since I am not talking in Arabic during class.
Why does the time go so fast in online classes? Maybe because it’s quiet. Everyone is on mute. This is very different from being in school. During certain classes in the past, the teacher would spend the entire class trying to get students to be quiet. I text with my best friend from school everyday. I really did not daydream during school. I am usually very focused. That has not changed.
Kayla: Remote learning for me is easier in some ways, but I do usually get distracted by my brothers who need my help. It feels faster but I prefer face-to-face classes. Not having my friends right next to me feels weird and is actually not as fun. I am used to being in class and having someone to talk to especially in the “breaks.” Now, I barely even text them. Sometimes it feels too awkward to talk to them by text.
Oyinade: When I’m participating in a remote class I feel kind of slow because I can’t type as fast as other people. I love to raise my hand and talk in class—now we’re supposed to click on the “chat” box and others try to beat each other to that. It also feels really weird and boring to not have friends within reach. Because we can’t do the things we normally do together, I’m texting with them less these days because we don’t really have anything to talk about except from the Zoom classes. Normally I daydream about sleeping, eating, and watching dramas. That’s changed because I sleep and eat any time now.
Q: What do you miss most about school?
Amal: I miss having a break and going to the bathroom. I used to do this at school—it was a way to take a little walk, as a break from work. Now I all I do is just mute myself and look at the window. I miss the teachers, the dean, my friends. I miss going out for halal food. When I think about school, I miss everything.
Kayla: I miss being in class and doing the hands-on activities like gym, labs and group work. I miss having time with the teachers. I really don’t miss the tests and seeing the disrespect that some students show teachers. A memorable thing about the school at home, though, is that I can eat during class and have my blanket. I would say that I have more responsibilities because when you can’t say things face-to-face with people, it’s harder to understand each other. So that makes more work.
Oyinade: I miss the discussions we had in class—they made me feel comfortable. I miss raising my hand in class. The most surprising thing about doing school at home is that my grades actually went up. I feel like I have more responsibilities now, but in reality, I don’t.
Q: What was the last thing you did at school? What will you do when you return?
Amal: My mom called the school to say that we were not going to come any more and soon after that, they closed the school. That last day was a normal day. The thing that popped into my mind was play fighting with my best friend and being late to Spanish class. The first thing I’m going to do when I go back to school is to keep fighting with my best friend. But I will not be late to Spanish class!
Kayla: The last thing I did at school was go to my physics class. I left the school with my friends. And the first thing I will do when we go back is say “hi” to my friends and to my classmates.
Oyinade: The last thing I did in school was try to make up my ELA work. The first thing I will do when we return is organize my locker. I took some of my stuff home but there are still things in my locker.
Source: Nina Granberry