I have written before that writing this newsletter on a weekly basis has helped me to clarify my thinking. Some of the topics I address here are evergreen - they will always be with us - and others are transitory. My hope is that living and working under the cloud of a pandemicis a transitory topic.
It is annual review time for me, and we are required to list our accomplishments in a fairly anodyne online system. This process used to be conducted in written form - what I jokingly referred to as the “you should love me memo.” Our annual raises - in years where we get them - are connected to this process.
This year, as part of the process we are invited to write a “Covid impact statement.” This is designed to allow each of us to address how Covid has impacted us, and how that may have impacted our performance. It seems to me - in thinking about what I might write - that this invitation has it mostly backwards. In the case of illness of oneself or a loved one, I can see the impact on the teacher, of course. And it is good that the system allows the impacted teacher to include such information in their annual review.
But I am more concerned about the impact on students. And again, this is preliminary - the school year is not over yet - and written only in the hope that it will clarify my thinking so far. I may have a different view in a few years looking back, but I suppose that is always true. (Of course it is especially true of the impact of Covid - we will all probably have a different view of what happened at this time in our lives than we do right at this moment).
So here is my attempt, based on my observations and despite our best efforts - at the two year mark of the pandemic:
I think Covid has impacted some of our students substantially to the detriment of their learning, and nearly all students somewhat to their detriment, especially in this second year.
This is neither a polemic about teaching online vs. in-person, nor a polemic about whether we should be teaching in masks, or whether our students should be in masks. It is a preliminary observation about how students have weathered this thing, in the second year of the pandemic.
Every year, every teacher has one or two students who approach the subject from a vastly different perspective that ends up hindering their learning. It requires a substantial amount of unlearning, and relearning, and sometimes there just is not enough time - for them or for the teacher - to fully bring them around. These students, I have observed, have been most substantially affected by the pandemic this year. The disconnect is too deep for the distance to bridge.
I am not quite sure why this is, but I suspect it is a combination of these factors: 1) online office hours are not the same as in-person, 2) the general dread we all have experienced has reduced their bandwidth and time for the turnaround necessary, 3) masks have depersonalized the teaching and learning environment somewhat, 4) many of them have gotten sick with Covid and missed classes, and 5) the pandemic has gone on too long - two years has worn everyone down.
I am also concerned that each of these factors have affected nearly all students, just to a lesser degree than those few who always struggle. Last year, I had several students who lost parents and grandparents to Covid. Deep loss and tragedy while trying to focus on learning complex information is undeniably difficult. And many of them got sick with Covid themselves, but at least they could, usually, participate in class normally (because it was fully online). Last year, I felt like the learning was where it usually was overall, generally speaking. This year feels somewhat different. It is too early to put numbers to this, but there is no question there has been an impact on our students. (Of course, there are always one or two who are impervious to outside impacts. Just really resilient and whip smart - they seem able to keep their high standards intact. The exceptions to the rule.)
In some ways, the in-person environment might have caused more difficulties than fully online. Getting sick, as many did this year too, made it more difficult, as they had to stay home and watch tapes of classes. Starting a new school in masks was hard for everyone. And perhaps an additional difference this year over last: what they were doing last year.
My younger daughter is a sophomore in college. She spent her freshman year exclusively online, living at home with her parents. As I have noted here before, this was not ideal for her, but she was a good sport about it, hung in there with her online courses, and she is on campus for her sophomore year.
At the parents’ weekend at her college last month my wife asked a pressing question of one of my daughter’s professors. She asked:
Q: Have you seen a drop off in performance or abilities in sophomores who were entirely online last year?
A: No. But what we have seen is a drop off in performance of the freshmen this year, who were entirely online for their senior year in high school.
I think this may apply to every transition student - that is, any student who spent their last year of (middle school, high school, college) online, and now is transitioning to (high school, college, graduate school), in-person. It seems that those students have been more vulnerable to the impact of Covid on their transition and learning. And the students who always struggle - for whatever reason - have struggled even more.
I would be interested in your observations about Covid impact on your students, this year and/or last. Please join the comments by clicking this button:
Letters of Recommendation
The musician Henry St. Claire Fredericks, Jr., known by his stage name Taj Mahal, is an American blues musician with a long career of extraordinary music making. I recently came upon this video of him singing Queen Bee, a love song, from a horse-drawn carriage in New Orleans. It hit me pretty hard, so I can recommend it to you enthusiastically.
Q of the Week
The Q of the Week this week is a Quote from the American teacher and writer Robert John Meehan:
Exemplary teachers are those teachers that can continually lay a firm foundation for learning even while using the bricks politicians have thrown at them.
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Have you noticed that various media outlets are still referring to Covid-19 as a “global pandemic?” Of course, that’s what the word pandemic refers to - a global epidemic. So “global pandemic” is like saying “global global epidemic,” which is dumb. Sorry - I just had to get that off my chest - I feel better, do you?
A lot of my students were able to adapt to online and then hybrid learning platforms easily enough, but the biggest impact of Covid just seems to be the lingering malaise. The common refrain seems to be that they feel a bit cheated; in Japan, college are your free years. You work your butt off to graduate high school and get into university. Once you graduate university, you're in the meat grinder of the business world until you reach the safety of retirement. So college is when you get to experiment and run a bit wild. Only these students haven't been able to do that, obviously. So, even though the schools did whatever they could to get the students online and into classes, my students seem to feel that, minus the accompanying rewards, it's just not worth the effort of studying all that much. Every bad score gets an asterisk next to it (*during COVID) and graduated is just about assured, so why bother doing any but the bare minimum? And so, while there's no denying that there was an impact on their learning, the bigger impact to students was the lack of social dynamism and campus life that has characterized the pandemic years. And, personally, I think that will ramifications for society long past whatever effects were caused by having a bit less English practice.
Just to be pedantic (and just for fun):
I'm not sure that "global pandemic" is actually redundant. My understanding is that you could have, for example, an African or European pandemic if the disease was found in several distinct regions of those continents.
Also, as a literary function, pleonasms can be used for emphasis and I think the case could be argued that, in the beginning at least, it was an intentional redundancy to emphasize the scale and scope of the problem.
Besides, using "global" sets a good precedent for when the Martians come and our only defense is to create an interplanetary pandemic. :)