Education in isolation: Create community over curriculum, educators say

(Graphic produced by Ester Wells)

By Ester Wells
Medill Reports

Michael Trencher, like many other professionals, is working from home. But as a single father working in finance, he’s on the job while managing his 12-year-old son Josh’s online education.

“It’s not easy,” he said. “You’re kind of the classroom monitor, making sure everybody’s staying on board with their lessons.”

Josh attends a private school in Manhattan, now operating on a hybrid remote/in-person model. Making the most of the time he would normally be in school has been challenging.

“In the beginning, there was the issue of keeping him focused on school and understanding that we’re not on vacation,” Trencher said. “There are going to be some struggles, but we’re going to have to make the best of it as a team.”

The transition to remote learning has been rapid and demanding for parents, teachers and students alike. Over the past year, educators have reinvented and sometimes thrown out their traditional curricula in favor of new ones workable in a virtual space. Parents juggle work, home and school life simultaneously and under one roof. Students are adapting to a new educational landscape that requires more discipline, self-reliance and flexibility than many are used to in the classroom.

And everyone is continuing to grapple with the toll of social isolation in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trust and strong relationships are key

For children, interaction with peers is fundamental to healthy cognitive and social development. Skills such as empathy, impulse control, perseverance and motivation — indicators of emotional intelligence — are learned through socialization and linked to better mental health and adulthood success.

But because interaction with people outside the home is limited, children have had little if any opportunity to practice those critical skills. This means not only are some children more vulnerable to anxiety, stress and loneliness, but they are also more dependent on family relationships.

“There have been tremendous stressors on families and on parents, and kids have been responsive to that,” said Jackie Covell, psychologist and clinical director at The Meeting House, an after-school enrichment program. “If we take leadership and ownership as parents, then children will look to us, to how we’re resolving things, how we’re coping, what our strategies are, and they will take their cues from that.”

Students also look to their teachers for emotional guidance and support. But without the intimacy of in-person classes, together with disparate access to working laptops, reliable Wi-Fi and other online connective resources, educators say building trust and strong relationships is now more important than ever.

“In remote learning, learning isn’t the most important thing,” Carlos Pereira, a teacher at Robofun, which offers hands-on STEM classes to children, said in an online STEAM education conference. “What’s more important is creating and fostering that sense of community, particularly when working with young children who’ve been in isolation and are at a very crucial emotional and social developmental stage in their lives.”


Parents and educators rethink learning

Just as students have been forced to adjust to a different learning experience, educators have been forced to adjust to a different teaching experience. Many narrowed the scope of their curriculum, softening their expectations for how much of the actual material students will understand. Technical issues with computers and shorter classes afford teachers less time to work with students. Meanwhile, student engagement and collaboration — integral to learning — take a hit.

“My ideal classroom is a noisy classroom,” said Irina Lyublinskaya, professor of mathematics and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, in the conference. “I want students to be engaged, collaborating, arguing, critiquing each other, doing experiments, constructing knowledge together.  … That’s what I’m missing most in online learning. I still need that noise, that collaboration.”

Parents and educators are concerned that these challenges will leave students falling behind academically and that they will not be as mentally or emotionally prepared for a post-pandemic world. Pereira said this can be disheartening and affect educators’ ability to teach. But Laura Hart, founder and CEO of Manhattan-based Robofun, said this is also an opportunity to teach children about empathy and compassion and, in doing so, create a generation of more resilient, resourceful students.

“We always think at this time that they’re missing so much and that they have to catch up, but they’re learning a lot from what’s going on right now,” she said. “I deeply believe that the curriculum right now is what we’re living through.” She added that “it’s a very different curriculum, but it’s a very good curriculum.”

Moving forward

As children continue their schooling online, educators say to focus on community. Providing a space for students to talk and interact freely when they have been deprived of socialization not only allows everyone to process what has unfolded, but also develops a nurturing environment in which students are more willing and able to learn. Covell urges adults “not just make it business as usual because this has been anything but business as usual.”

Finding ways to strengthen other skill sets in the meantime proves valuable. Trencher said Josh has started walking his neighbors’ dogs, retrieving people’s packages in the mail-room, checking on elderly residents in their building, knocking on doors and asking how they’re doing.

“He’s grown up a lot over the past year,” Trencher said. “He’s become more aware of people who’ve been shut into their apartments because of the pandemic … and it has just been therapeutic for my son in terms of understanding the human element of this whole thing.”

Hart said making the best of this situation, as Josh has, is key. ~

“The people who can make lemonade out of the lemons of this moment are going to be the survivors,” she said.

Ester Wells covers health, environment and science at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @esterwells_.