On July 30th, the Mayor of DC, Muriel Bowser, announced that D.C. schools would begin the year remotely. It was clearly time to take the lessons learned and get better. Our leaders went to work. They reviewed and revised curriculum, made great decisions about material and tech distribution for all students, conducted empathy interviews with teaching staff, surveyed staff and families, and used this feedback to craft a plan for summer professional development for our 1,150 staff members.
However, as we crafted a plan for the start of the year, we realized a critical voice was missing in our planning. Our students.
We Needed to Hear From Our Students
For two weeks, an informal research team comprised of three school leaders, a data geek, and a wise and patient Ph.D. student, called our students, asked them questions, recorded their answers, and came up with concrete recommendations based on what we heard from the students.
We began with the 55 students in our eighth grades who had received two or more incompletes because we were worried about them and about losing them in the transition between middle school and high school. We called all of them and were able to interview 35 students. Here’s what they shared with us.
- Students feel a sense of loss. “I felt sad because I want to be able to communicate with people.” They are grieving the loss of school, of routines, of social interactions with peers, and of their former lives. Even students who reported initial elation at the prospect of remote learning became disenchanted after a few months. “I thought it was cool at first. Then, I started to miss everybody and wanted to go back.”
- They struggle with the remote learning schedule. Some students reported having a hard time creating individual schedules during the initial remote learning period when the majority of our instruction was asynchronous. Others shared that they struggled with synchronous classes because of child-care, chores or sleep schedules. “The hardest part was balancing my siblings’ work and my work and making sure they ate. I would do my stuff first. Then I would make sure they ate and they did their work.”
- Students crave real-time, interactive academic support. Many of the students spoke about not being able to ask questions during synchronous classes, or not understanding the classwork. “It didn’t make as much sense as it would in school. In school I can get more help.”
- Students do not always feel successful in a Zoom environment. Some students were too shy. Others felt like the teacher talked the entire time and could not figure out how to ask questions. “The worst thing about it was having to sit there and listen to someone talk to you instead of actually being in class.”
Students Know What They Need to Thrive
Fortunately, these same students were able to suggest specific ways to make remote learning more successful for them, and for the rest of the 7,000 KIPP DC students. The team came up with over 75 concrete recommendations from our students, which we’ve narrowed to the strategies we (and our students) believe will have the greatest impact across our schools.
- Provide grief counseling and mental health supports for all students and families at consistent times. Our students are being asked to navigate an incredible landscape—a global pandemic, illness and loss of family members, economic uncertainty, and a national reckoning about race inspired by the murders of innocent African Americans. They need help coming to terms with the current world, and continuing to imagine the future.
- Restructure Zoom classrooms. We have to make sure we are providing teachers with exemplar lessons, utilizing breakout groups with student facilitators, balancing teacher talk with student talk, devoting time for open questions, and implementing engagement tools for frequent checks for understanding. Now we’ve had time to choose the best platforms and learn those platforms, we can incorporate our best pedagogical moves, the same ones that work well in real life and real classrooms.
- Spend time intentionally creating school-based and classroom-based communities, make sure that enrichment/club activities are available, partner with local organizations to help provide additional enrichment. When we implemented remote learning, we imagined Zoom as a way for teachers to share content with their students. However, content without community is wasted. Our teachers intentionally craft learning communities within their classrooms. Students should have access to all the things they love about school—drama and choir, anime club and yearbook. We can do that virtually, it just takes some thought.
- Work with local universities and businesses to set up tutoring for students in the hours outside the normal teacher day. Our students are craving one-on-one attention and additional academic help. Many adults are craving meaning and searching for ways to help. Pairing students and adults during this time would benefit both groups.
- Create intentional buddy systems so students interact and access each other as part of a classroom community. Creating buddy groups would mean that all students have someone outside of the teacher and their family to talk to and ask for help. It might even decrease bullying and lead to some lasting friendships.
- Provide increased opportunities for student voice. Organize town halls and interviews with leaders in our community. Right now, our students feel powerless. They are trying to make sense of an unfamiliar and daunting world. Let’s strive to help them amplify their voices and be heard.
To truly understand what children are experiencing right now, we must take it upon ourselves to ask them. Directly. With empathy and kindness. With an open mind and the willingness to put our adult preconceptions aside. They will tell us the truth, but we do need to ask. The act of asking and listening deeply to their expertise and their experience can only compel us to listen, reflect and respond.