Learning…Gained.

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Having been a classroom teacher for over two decades, I can attest to what middle schoolers come to me with in September versus what they leave with come June. My middle schoolers typically walk through my door with a varying range of reading and writing abilities, temperaments, interests, etc. By the end the school year, these students leave me for 8th grade hopefully with more knowledge and skills when it comes to understanding historical content. I try my best to teach them historical empathy skills so that they can better understand context and how that provides a lens from which they need to use so as to not pass judgment on the past.

Without a doubt the coronavirus pandemic has thrown a wrench into my plans to develop mini-historians within the controlled four walls of my classroom. However, when I hear people (e.g., politicians, journalists, fellow educators) use the term learning loss, the hair on my neck instantly stands up and my fists start to clench. I don’t need anyone to tell me that the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted “normal” school procedures, policies, and practices. I know that.

And I suspect that many who are stating that this learning loss is devastating to our students are basing those statements on test scores. As in, the students are not progressing on standardized tests. But standardized tests were suspended last spring. At least they were in my state. So, how do we know that learning loss actually occurred?

And, what do standardized tests really measure? And, is that the sole measure of learning?

Educators use the term multiple measures in reference to looking at the whole child and their growth. But in my experience, test scores seem play a bigger role in determining whether a child is learning (or not)–the “other” measures do not seem to carry the same weight. To be clear, I am not saying that tests are bad or that tests do not measure growth. They do. And tests have their place. But I do think too much emphasis has been and continues to be placed on test scores.

So, what does learning loss really mean?

In my doctoral classes, my professors constantly reminded us of the importance of operationalizing the variable. If the variable isn’t properly defined, how could we possibly determine if change occurred?

When I hear the term learning loss, it reminds me of the work by Dr. Karl L. Alexander from Johns Hopkins University. His research (which spanned over two decades) examined summer slide or summer learning loss for children living in Baltimore. Findings from his studies illuminate the connection between socioeconomics and academic achievement–with academic achievement serving as the measure of learning. The variables for this longitudinal study were clearly operationalized.

I bring this up because my students this spring will be taking standardized tests in English, mathematics, and science. And, it’s a distinct possibility that their scores may be lower than their counterparts who took the same tests in spring of 2019.

But let’s be realistic here. Our students have been living in a pandemic for the past 11 months. They have been surviving along with the rest of us. The world as they knew it has changed. Schooling as they remembered has changed. Social interactions that they were used to has changed.

But what I’ve found from my students over these past 11 months is something pretty remarkable. Actually, it’s quite heart-warming when you think about it.

During this pandemic, when in-person instruction was abruptly shut-down, and students found themselves staring at a screen for hours on end…a silver lining appeared in their writing.

Yes, their writing.

As I teach a semester course, I have had three sets of students keep a Living History Journal since March 17, 2020. In those journal pages, students honestly wrote about their fears, their confusion, their sadness, their anger, and even their hopelessness. But in those same journals, my students shared that they were happy to be able to spend more time with their families, that they grew closer to their siblings (gasp!), that they were picking up new hobbies (e.g., baking, art, skateboarding, guitar), and, perhaps more surprisingly, that they were finding new ways to keep themselves occupied.

Resilience.

That’s what my students learned over the past 11 months.

Family matters.

That’s what my students learned over the past 11 months.

Love is important.

That’s what my students learned over the past 11 months.

Connections keep us going.

That’s what my students learned over the past 11 months.

Here are excerpts from some the Living History Journals from March 2020 – present:

  • “I been listening to musicals like ‘Six’ and ‘Hamilton’ because it’s a fun way to learn history with fun music and jokes!”
  • “I remembered about how lifeless I felt about quarantine but now the feeling changed. I hope that means that I have learned to face things, it’ll be a sign that I matured. I don’t want to be so childish.”
  • “Another thing I did this week was that I began to look into volunteering programs. I still have to see what I want to volunteer in, but I’m looking forward to volunteering because I’ll be doing it with my sister…”
  • “We played for about 1 hour then got bored so decided to go cook ramen on FaceTime [sic]. I’m not going to lie, that was fun because we were talking like we were professional chefs. I think we’re as good as Gordon Ramsay! [sic]”
  • “This week instead of playing my tablet, I decided to work on a painting.”
  • “I find hanging out with family [is] one of the best things during social distancing, and it is really helping me cope during these tough times.”
  • “I got to spend more time with my siblings.”
  • “I don’t really want to go back because I like being comfy and around my family at home. I love school, but isn’t it just nice to be around family all day?!”
  • “I have started to learn how to love myself and take care of myself too.”
  • “I think I really matured throughout this. Quarantine has really taught me more about myself, and that I should live to be myself.”
  • “I have visited my grandma’s house on Friday. It was really stressful, but it’s good to get some family time. You never know when bad things will come, so it’s best to make good use of the time you have with others.”
  • “I am very fortunate to have all my family safe and with good health. I dislike the idea of the pandemic ruining my middle school experience, but we humans have no power to control whether or not the pandemic stays or not.”

These excerpts show me that while my students may not make the same expected strides academically when they take the standardized tests this spring…I believe that they have learned equally (if not more) important skills that will benefit them in the future:

Resilience

Family

Love

Connection

Grace

Compassion

I don’t count this as learning loss, but rather as learning gained.

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